Doctors say Dutch descendants prone to genetic heart disease

Posted at 4:56 PM, Jul 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-27 16:56:51-04

HOLLAND, Mich. – Doctors believe you and your loved ones could be living with a ticking time bomb called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM).  Anyone can get it, but research suggests people of Dutch descent are susceptible.

“HCM is the most common genetic heart condition you may have never heard of,” said Dr. David Fermin, the Medical Director of Spectrum Health’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy program.

Dr. Fermin understands people of Dutch descent are prone to having a specific genetic mutation dating back multiple generations, making them more susceptible.

HCM is a familial disease of the heart causing the muscle to grow larger than it should; sometimes the first symptom is sudden death.

“Dutch people are not at a higher prevalence to the disease but we’ve narrowed in on this ‘founder gene’ that’s pretty much the cause of the condition in most of people we’re seeing of Dutch heritage,” Dr. Fermin said.

Specialists estimate between 2,000 and 4,000 people in West Michigan may be affected, saying the concentrated population of Dutch descendants means doctors at Spectrum Health’s HCM program are treating more and more people living with the disease.

“The last two times I ran… I was coughing up blood,” said Ken Whitcomb, one of five family members currently seen by Dr. Fermin.

Whitcomb, 53, of Holland, is a former college track star. And like a handful of ancestors in his Dutch family tree, he was unknowingly living with HCM. He stopped running due to his symptoms and wasn’t diagnosed until he was 32.

"And when you can’t run around the yard with your kids, that’s something that didn’t seem right to us," Whitcomb said.

Fifteen years after his diagnosis, Whitcomb underwent Septal Myectomy, a cardiac treatment removing the enlarged muscles of the heart obstructing the flow of blood.

Today, Ken and his wife Glynis are celebrating a new lease on life. Ken has started running again and was able to see his daughter recently get married.  He's now reminding others how important it is to get screened for HCM.