Graduate student dies after collapsing due to heart defect


Published June 18, 2006

A 25-year-old female Rackham student died due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary heart defect, earlier this month. HCM is the most common cause of sudden death in people younger than 25.

The student was using the exercising facilities in her apartment building, Huron Towers, when she collapsed.

Family and friends of the student requested that her name not be used in this article.

Rackham student Yueh-Chuan Tzeng was the roommate of the student who died.

"We were just like family," Tzeng said, who lived with her for two years.

Tzeng said her roommate was a devoted patron of Grace Bible Church in Ann Arbor. A memorial service was held at the church, located on South Maple Street, on June 5.

At the service, one of the student's co-workers said, "Everyone should have a friend like her in their life."

The student was also part of Michigan Christian Grads, a fellowship formed by graduate students at the University.

Tzeng said her roommate always had a positive attitude and was focused on her studies.

"She worked very hard to complete a dual degree in Civil Environmental Engineering and Industrial Operations Engineering in two years," Tzeng said.

The student graduated from the School of Engineering in April.

Rackham student Rebecca Booi was also using the facilities at the time of the student's death. She said the student had been running on the treadmill after using an elliptical machine when she collapsed. Booi immediately called 911 and tried giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

When the paramedics arrived four to five minutes after Booi called the student had already stopped breathing. The paramedics spent 15 minutes trying to revive her on site before taking the student to the hospital.

HCM is characterized by an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, which can result in arrhythmias - irregular muscle contractions of the heart.

HCM is caused by a genetic mutation and is usually present at birth. The mutation is passed to 50 percent of the individual's offspring.

"(HCM) is definitely something that college-age people, especially athletes, should know about - if there's a history of sudden death in their family, if they themselves have felt faint or especially tired on the playing field," said spokeswoman for the University Health System Kara Gavin in an e-mail.

Last month, the University opened a clinic in its Cardiovascular Center that specializes in HCM treatment.

"We felt there was a need to really cater to these patients," said Medical School Prof. Sharlene Day, the clinic's director.

She said that the intensity of competitive athletics usually triggers arrhythmias. About 1 percent of individuals with HCM die of sudden death each year.

Day said sudden deaths are associated most often with playing aggressive sports or bursts of activity, such as basketball, football or weight-lifting.

Using imaging techniques and electrocardiograms, the new clinic offers screenings for family members of HCM patients to determine if they carry the genetic mutation.

Nearly all individuals diagnosed with HCM have an abnormal EKG.

Booi said she was impacted strongly by the student's death because she is also a 25-year-old graduate student who exercises strenuously.

After witnessing the student's death, Booi did not want to take any chances - she had an EKG this past Monday.

Although one in 500 people may suffer from HCM, one in 200,000 dies from a sudden death each year.

"It's important to emphasize that this is still a very rare event," Day said. "I don't think people should be alarmed."

To learn more about cardiovascular disease, visit the University Cardiovascular Center's website at