Sur­prise DNA re­sults turn­ing cus­tomer reps into ther­a­pists

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - TODAY’S EXPLAINER AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT NEWS - By Kris­ten V Brown

It was a one-line chat re­ply from an Ances­tryDNA cus­tomer-ser­vice rep that ripped Cather­ine St. Clair’s life apart.

St. Clair, 57, is her fam­ily’s res­i­dent ge­neal­o­gist and had sent her saliva to Ances­try for test­ing. So when her brother Mike showed up as a “first cousin or close rel­a­tive,” she as­sumed it must be a glitch. Even stranger: The test showed that some­one she had never heard of was a much closer ge­netic match than Mike.

She con­tacted Ances­try cus­tomer ser­vice through the web­site’s chat fea­ture. Calmly, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive named Pam ex­plained cen­ti­mor­gans, a unit for mea­sur­ing ge­netic link­age. Sib­lings, Pam said, nor­mally share about 2,600 cen­ti­mor­gans of DNA, while half-sib­lings share 1,800.

“She said, ‘Go click on the lit­tle icon by his name. It will tell you how much you share with him,’” re­called St. Clair. “And when I clicked on it, that’s when the floor fell out from un­der me.”

Mike wasn’t her full brother. They didn’t share the same fa­ther.

“We don’t re­ally play the role of ther­a­pist, but rather lis­ten and try to be sym­pa­thetic and em­pa­thetic, get­ting them to process things,” said Kent Hil­lyer, head of cus­tomer care for the ge­netic-test­ing firm 23andMe.

At 23andMe, those types of calls are so fre­quent that pre­par­ing for them is in­te­grated into the com­pany’s months-long train­ing pro­gram. The most com­mon is­sue, said Hil­lyer, is when a cus­tomer’s pre­sumed fa­ther doesn’t show up on a test as the ge­netic dad. But some­times mothers or sib­lings are a sur­prise, too.

“How most of those con­ver­sa­tions start is peo­ple come to us to ver­ify the ac­cu­racy,” said Hil­lyer. “Some­body has known some­thing their whole life and then this com­pany is telling them some­thing dif­fer­ent. It’s tough. And then it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m head­ing to a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner. Can you help me out with this be­fore I go have this con­ver­sa­tion with my mother?’”

In train­ing, new em­ploy­ees do mock phone calls and role play­ing to pre­pare for such con­ver­sa­tions

“We prac­tice em­pa­thy and sym­pa­thy,” said Hil­lyer. “A lot of it is just lis­ten­ing.

“We al­ways try to steer the con­ver­sa­tion to­ward the data, tell them that this is sci­ence,” he added.

At Ances­try, Kathy Luke, vice pres­i­dent of mem­ber ser­vices, said a spe­cial team of rep­re­sen­ta­tives han­dles sen­si­tive queries.

“There are cer­tainly cases where a dis­cov­ery might be quite un­ex­pected,” she said. “We take our re­spon­si­bil­ity to­ward our cus­tomers-and the po­ten­tial im­pact of com­plex dis­cov­er­ies-very se­ri­ously.”

Such emo­tional calls can take a toll on em­ploy­ees, too. That’s per­haps in­evitable when tech­nol­ogy in­ter­faces with such sen­si­tive, per­sonal in­for­ma­tion. Ear­lier this year, a for­mer con­tent mod­er­a­tor at Face­book went so far as to file a class-ac­tion law­suit claim­ing the so­cial-me­dia gi­ant didn’t go far enough in pro­tect­ing them from the men­tal trauma caused by screen­ing im­agery of things like rape, tor­ture and sui­cide.

At 23andMe, Hil­lyer of­ten en­cour­ages rep­re­sen­ta­tives to go for a walk af­ter an in­tense call, or cracks open a bot­tle of wine to help them de­com­press.

“We kind of do these in­ter­nal ther­apy ses­sions,” he said. “Here, maybe more so than most places, you have to be re­ally sup­port­ive of each other.”

Lind­say Grove, a cus­tomer-care rep­re­sen­ta­tive at 23andMe, still re­mem­bers one call in par­tic­u­lar years later, a dad who took the test only to find out that his child was not, in fact, his child. At first, like most, he was just try­ing to fig­ure out whether the re­sults were ac­cu­rate. So Grove ex­plained the sci­ence be­hind the data. The cus­tomer then be­came somber and quiet. He ques­tioned whether he should talk to his wife, and, if he did, how.

“You could hear the emo­tion in him, and hear his pro­cess­ing and won­der­ing what he would do next,” she said. “That process of fig­ur­ing out what to do next is very dif­fi­cult for cus­tomers.”The next step for St. Clair, who got the big sur­prise from Ances­try, was reach­ing out to the rel­a­tive who showed up more closely re­lated to her than her brother. She sent a mes­sage through the com­pany’s web­site.

“I shared 2,172 cen­ti­mor­gans with her,” said St. Clair. That was just a lit­tle more than she had shared with her brother. Pam, the cus­tomer-ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive, told her that meant the mys­tery rel­a­tive was ei­ther a half-sib­ling, an aunt, an un­cle, a niece or a nephew.

St. Clair and the mys­tery rel­a­tive talked on the phone. It turned out they were, in fact, half-sib­lings. Her mother had worked for her new­found-sis­ter’s dad in 1960, around the same time that St. Clair was con­ceived. Both of her par­ents died years ago, so it was too late for St. Clair to con­front them about the dis­cov­ery.

St. Clair went on to start a Face­book group for peo­ple like her called DNA NPE Friends. NPE is short for “not par­ent ex­pected.” It now has more than 4,000 mem­bers and is one of sev­eral such groups. Re­cently, St. Clair be­gan the process to reg­is­ter it as a non­profit, ad­vo­cat­ing for emo­tional sup­port for the thou­sands of peo­ple who take DNA tests and find out their fam­ily isn’t ex­actly the fam­ily they ex­pected.

BRIAN FLAHERTY / THE NEW YORK TIMES

A grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies now of­fer DNA tests that prom­ise to pin­point a cus­tomer’s her­itage and iden­tify ge­netic rel­a­tives.

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