Local U-M Student Went From Patient to Ph.D. Candidate

This University of Michigan physiology graduate student’s history with a heart disease helps him better understand and temper his clinical expectations.
Vi Tang was diagnosed with HCM at age 15 while living in Vietnam. // Photograph courtesy of Vi Tang

Vi Tang is one of nearly a million people living in the U.S. with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that affects the heart. But unlike many HCM patients, Tang is in the unique position to view the diagnosis from both an intimate angle and a clinical perspective: The 31-year-old University of Michigan student is studying physiology — with the intention of eventually dedicating himself to HCM research.

“It’s interesting to be standing in the middle of three: being a patient, having been a research subject in clinical studies, and now doing some of the research,” Tang says.

It’s this positioning that he says has helped him have a familiarity of the heart condition but also temper his expectations for a cure or treatment — something he hopes other patients will understand and accept.

Tang’s experience with HCM began at age 15 when living in Vietnam. Upon visiting an after-hours clinic with cold-like symptoms, a doctor listened to his heart and detected a murmur. Tang was tested, referred to a cardiologist, and eventually diagnosed with HCM.

According to the the Mayo Clinic, in patients with HCM, the heart muscle becomes thickened, which can make it harder for the heart to pump blood. It frequently goes undiagnosed because many people with HCM have few or no symptoms. In some, the condition can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, or changes in the heart’s electrical system, leading to life-threatening irregular heart rhythms or sudden death.

There are numerous possible complications and no known prevention for HCM. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, but can include medication, surgery, and other procedures. Over the course of his life, Tang has had a cardioverter defibrillator implanted and septal myectomy, an open-heart surgery to remove some of the thickened muscle.

These two procedures took place in the U.S. after Tang moved here to study biology as an undergraduate at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. After learning that the University of Michigan had a research team focused on HCM, he applied and was accepted into the Sharlene Day Lab. He’s now a student in the Ph.D. graduate program in molecular and integrative physiology, studying how proteins move inside of cells.

“My eventual goal is to do a postdoctoral fellowship and study HCM, and maybe eventually, hopefully, have a career investigating HCM,” Tang says, hoping that any small impact he might have on the research community could ultimately improve patient experiences — with which he’s intimately familiar.

“I wouldn’t say that being a patient motivates me to work harder,” Tang says. “What it does help make me realize is the disconnect between the research community and the patient community. Sometimes it’s hard for patients to understand the research because it’s so technical. It’s good to have different organizations and advocacy groups to raise awareness of HCM and bridge these disconnections.”

Tang emphasizes the need to manage expectations around HCM research: Understand that not every new piece of information will be immediately actionable, and it may not apply to each individual case. He also advises to make sure your physician “is someone that you trust, that you can have a dialogue with. And then together, you can work as a team to make good decisions. I think that’s the best approach: Work with your doctors. It’s not nothing fancy.”

This story is part of the 2023 Health Guide. Read more in our Digital Edition.