Saving Lives: How a Life Jacket Entrepreneur Found His Own Life Preserver Through a DNA Test

Mike Fox, 29, learned a lot about saving lives when he started his company, Hyde Sportswear, which makes an ultra-thin life jacket called the Wingman. The life vest even caught the attention of Shark Tank producers.

The day Fox received the email from the Shark Tank casting director was his mom’s birthday. “It was the first year without her, and it felt like a sign,” he says. It would be one of many signs that Fox felt after his mother died, as her death led to saving his life.

Finding a Diagnosis 

As a child, Fox had seizures and fainting and began seeing doctors when he was about four years old. But after many neurological tests and MRIs, doctors could not pinpoint the causes of his symptoms. As a teenager, the seizures and fainting stopped for a while but started again in college. After more testing, doctors were still perplexed and couldn’t diagnose his disease.

Then suddenly in 2016, Fox’s mother, Meg, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 54. She had an electrocardiogram a year before with normal results, but it wasn’t until after her death that the Fox family learned she had familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a heart condition in which the muscular walls of the heart are thickened. This condition can impede the flow of blood from the heart and cause abnormal heart rhythms, which can be life-threatening.

Mike Fox with his mother Meg

Mike Fox with his mother Meg

 Although grief-stricken over Meg’s death, the Fox family began to discuss their family history, one that included symptoms of heart disease in both Meg and her mother.

 “After we found out that [my mom] had HCM, friends suggested to my dad that there was a genetic connection,” Fox says. “It was people looking out for us saying, ‘There are things you can do to check this.’ They were aware of how far we had come in genetics. I had no clue at the time that this testing was possible.”

 After meeting with a genetic counselor to discuss testing and its implications, Fox says his family had mixed emotions but decided to proceed with testing. So Fox, his four siblings, and his mother’s brother got tested for the MYL2 variant that his mother carried, and that can cause HCM. Of the group, Fox was the only one who tested positive.

Upon learning that he had the genetic variant, Fox says, “Part of me was scared, but the other part of me felt this connection with my mom like she’s a guardian angel … that was pretty special.”

Since then, Fox had an MRI, which showed significant scarring in his heart. His doctors recommended an internal defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat. He had the defibrillator implanted earlier this year, does not have to take medications, and says his prognosis is good.

“I think anytime you go through something that’s challenging — when you face a crisis — you learn, and you grow, and you change. I’ve gained knowledge from this experience. I’ve also felt a calling to raise awareness around this disease,” Fox says.  

Most people with HCM go undiagnosed until they have a sudden cardiac event like his mother, says Fox, which is why he wants to bring attention to the disease. He’s filed paperwork to start the Fox Big Heart Foundation, in honor of his mother, and hopes to raise funds for HCM research, education, and CPR classes.

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“There are many people out there who are not aware of HCM. I feel lucky to be in the know,” he says. “Getting genetic testing will make a huge impact and will help save lives in the near future.”

Looking Forward

As for his future, Fox and his business partner, Pat Hughes, did go on Shark Tank earlier this year to pitch their life jacket. Kevin O’Leary offered them a deal, but the equity stake was too high, so they did not accept it. However, the attention from the show has brought the business a spike in sales and investment interest, all for which he is thankful.

“At the end of the day, it’s a great product that has the potential to save lives,” Fox says. And saving lives is something he hopes genetic testing will do for patients with HCM.

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Lena Huang  is a science writer and editor. She is the former editorial director of  Genome  magazine.

Lena Huang is a science writer and editor. She is the former editorial director of Genome magazine.