Rebuilding Lives Through DNA Identification
by Stephanie Brooks
Recent disasters have highlighted the important role genetic counselors play in the aftermath of mass casualties. Their skills help families not only identify the remains of lost relatives but also facilitate emotional healing.
In August of 2005,Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana causing extensive damage with 12,000 people feared missing or deceased. The devastation caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of thousands of residents without homes and separated from loved ones. Along with the cleanup effort, there was a need to identify those who were missing and unaccounted for, as well as, the deceased. From the extensive water damage caused by the storm, medical and dental records were destroyed creating difficulties in identifying the already decomposing human remains.
In September 2005, The Family Assistance Center was set up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to conduct the largest DNA ID effort in history. Spearheading the effort were geneticists and health care professionals who teamed up to gather information about missing family members. Part of the team included genetic counselors, some of whom were students in the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics. They took detailed family histories and helped family members cope with emotions brought on by the crisis. Genetics professionals gathered information about missing individuals including full names, previous addresses, date of birth, family members names, physical description (including tattoos, scars and birthmarks), and medical histories. They also worked with families who had missing loved ones to aid them in reaching a decision about kinship matching.
Siobhan Dolan, MD, MPH, who is also a faculty member for the program, was one of the geneticists involved with making this possible. “Working at the Family Assistance Center gave us an opportunity to put our genetics knowledge to use in a whole new way. It was very meaningful to feel that we were part of the recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina. We met so many interesting people and have gone on to collaborate with them on DNA identification research and other efforts” says Dr. Dolan.
The effort is responsible for successfully tracking down family members and identifying those who were missing. Kinship DNA testing was responsible for aiding the identification of more than 150 individuals.
The exhaustive effort to search for the missing has touched countless lives. Families who experienced the loss of a loved one found closure and comfort in finding out what had happened to them. For those who were involved in the search for the missing and the identification of the deceased, it was an experience they will look back upon knowing they made a difference to the people of Louisiana in a time of crisis. It also gave the students real life experiences. They were able to build their interpersonal skills while practicing their science.
In January 2010, a terrible earthquake hit Haiti with thousands feared dead. Among those, 103 US citizens were reported or presumed dead from the devastation. Reflecting on the success of the Family Assistance Center set up in Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina, other government agencies have become involved in the effort to help in the identification process. There is an effort to set up centers in Washington DC and Orlando, Florida to identify these US citizens. Although the process to coordinate and establish these centers has proven to be challenging, many health care professionals in the genetics field are enthusiastically providing their support and services.