Gillian Dusterwald


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I have a double masters’ degree – the first, completed in 1990, is a MSc(Biotech) from Wits University, which qualified me in laboratory techniques of molecular biology (yes – I know how to clone a gene). Prior to this I studied a BSc (Bot and Zoo) and am a qualified teacher who taught for a year before my first masters’ degree, which led me to doing research in Agriculture and included a few years in the Wits Department of Genetics.

My second, a MSc Med (Genetic counselling) obtained from UCT in 2015, qualifies me to see patients with questions about their personal and familial risks for rare diseases, and to facilitate genetic testing after a thorough evaluation and discussion about  the pros and cons of testing for each individual. Through this process I help people to make informed decisions about their health. Between the two degrees, I taught young children from the age of 6 months to swim – in group sessions with a caregiver in the water. This was hugely rewarding and I realised that I enjoy working with people, but ultimately, I became totally waterlogged and felt the need to retrain for a more intellectually stimulating endeavour.

I see a wide range of individuals or families who are concerned about inherited conditions. The reasons that a person might consult a genetic counsellor include:

  • A personal or family history of a genetic condition, birth defect, chromosomal disorder, or hereditary cancer. I participate in an annual colorectal cancer surveillance trip to the Northern Cape, where we screen about 100 people with Lynch Syndrome for colorectal, endometrial and other cancers which are more common in people with a mutation in a gene causing Lynch Syndrome.

  • Two or more pregnancy losses (miscarriages), a stillbirth, or a baby who died.

  • A child with a known inherited disorder, a birth defect, intellectual disability, or developmental delay.

  • A woman who is pregnant or plans to become pregnant at or after age 35. (Some chromosomal disorders occur more frequently in children born to older women.)

  • Abnormal test results that suggest a genetic or chromosomal condition.

  • An increased risk of developing or passing on a particular genetic disorder based on a person’s ethnic background.

  • People related by blood (for example, cousins) who plan to have children together. (A child whose parents are related may be at an increased risk of inheriting certain genetic disorders.)

  • One or more family members with early deaths due to known or unknown medical conditions

  • One or more family members with adult-onset health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, or cancer, particularly if onset is early in adulthood

  • Those who have or are concerned that their child has developmental delays that may be due to an inherited disorder or birth defect

  • Women who are interested in genetic testing or screening

  • People concerned that their jobs, lifestyles, or medical history may pose a risk to the outcome of a pregnancy. Common causes of concern include exposure to radiation, medications, illegal drugs, chemicals, or infections

  • Pregnant women whose ultrasound examinations or blood testing indicate that their pregnancy may be at increased risk for certain complications or birth defects

  • Anyone who is concerned about the risk of developing a psychiatric condition due to their family history

  • People who would like to explore their results from a direct-to-consumer or ancestry test