Genetic Counselor Janet Talbert receives prestigious award from the American Thoracic Society for her advocacy for patients with pulmonary fibrosis
by Emma Mattson
On March 11, Vanderbilt genetic counselor Janet Talbert received the John W. Walsh PAR Award for Excellence for her decades of service to patients with pulmonary fibrosis.
“I was really surprised, and I was honored,” Talbert, who joined the Vanderbilt community in December of 2020, said. “When I looked at the past recipients, I was even more honored, because I’m only the second non-physician to win it since its inception in 2003.”
The American Thoracic Society’s award letter cited Talbert’s “impeccable service” to patients with lung diseases and their families.
“The service you provide embodies vision, hope, support, and relief to those who have survived these illnesses,” the letter stated.
A Non-traditional Route to Genetic Counseling
Talbert joined Vanderbilt from a 16-year tenure at National Jewish Health, an academic medical center in Denver known worldwide for its innovative work in respiratory immunology. At National Jewish Health, she worked first as a clinical research coordinator and then, after earning her Masters in Genetic Counseling, began counseling patients and their families in the Interstitial Lung Disease clinic there.
Talbert has been very involved in the pulmonary fibrosis community since 2003. From research coordination to genetic counseling to public speaking, her work has consistently advanced understanding of this life-threatening disease.
While at National Jewish Health, Talbert was heavily involved in gene discovery research surrounding familial pulmonary fibrosis. When genes associated with pulmonary fibrosis were discovered, conversation in the genetic counseling world turned to the possibilities for genetic testing for this disease.
“That disease at the time was basically a death sentence,” Talbert remembers. “Now, as of 2014, we have some medications that slow the progression, but there’s still no cure other than a lung transplant.”
So, when people see the disease running in their family, they often seek genetic counseling to understand their own chances of developing the disease, Talbert said.
To fill this apparent need, Talbert and her colleagues at National Jewish Health started a 1-800 genetic counseling line, where any clinician, patient, or family member affected by pulmonary fibrosis could ask questions about risks and genetic testing. Talbert worked with the hotline from 2008 until 2020, serving patients and providers alike.
“I talked to thousands of patients and their family members or even doctors,” Talbert remembers. “Some doctors didn’t understand how to get their patients tested, what to test for— because they’re pulmonologists, not geneticists.”
A few years later, Talbert began speaking regularly at the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation’s bi-annual summit. In 2014, she became a PFF Ambassador and travelled across the country, speaking with healthcare providers, patients, and support groups.
Given her history of dedicated service, it should come as no surprise, then, that Talbert would qualify for “an honor given to a person who embodies passion for patients, innovative spirit, and outstanding leadership skills,” according to the American Thoracic Society.
Vanderbilt faculty Jon Kropski, MD, contributed to Talbert’s nomination for the award, describing her tireless patient advocacy over the past decades.
“She has touched the lives of countless patients with pulmonary fibrosis and their families, helping bring clarity and understanding where it is deeply needed,” Kropski said in the award nomination letter.
The fact that only one other non-physician has ever received this award points to Talbert’s own decidedly non-traditional route to genetic counseling— a pathway she embraces. She has an encouraging message for the whole genetic counseling community:
“That’s what’s good about genetic counseling: you can be traditional or you can be very non-traditional,” Talbert said. “Blaze your own trail.”
Visit VUSM’s website for more information on our Master of Genetic Counseling program.