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NFA grad Kyle Liang, now a PA at New York-Presbyterian, has always had big-city dreams

Some of Kyle Liang's first memories of New York City were of he and his brother Kevin piling in the car with their parents, John and Shirley, headed to visit his mom's side of the family in Brooklyn.

"We would go eat dim sum and wait for endless hours for my mom to get her groceries in the Chinese grocery store," Liang said. "Whenever she has a chance to take advantage of getting to go to one, she likes to buy everything at once to stock up for 12 months and freeze it all in one of our three fridges."

Liang, the former Norwich Free Academy track and cross country great and 2012 Eastern Connecticut Conference cross country champion, always pictured himself living in New York, a city alive with electricity, him matching the whirlwind pace stride for stride.

Liang, who received his undergraduate and master's degrees from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, became a physician assistant in August, 2019, in a white coat ceremony surrounded by his family and closest friends. In November, he began his career as a physician assistant in internal medicine at the renowned New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He moved to the Upper East Side, a 10-block walk from the hospital.

Then came the insidious COVID-19 pandemic, which paralyzed the nation as well as its most populous city, New York.

"I've always dreamed of living in a big city," Liang, 24, said in a recent telephone interview. "When I first got here, it was everything I dreamed of, very busy, very vibrant, every hour of the day, every minute of the day.

"I think in the winter you already get used to seeing the city quiet down a little bit. To see it now, since COVID hit in March, it's quiet in a different sense. For weeks and a couple months, you didn't hear cars, you didn't hear people laughing and having loud conversations on the sidewalk. All the stimulus normally associated with the fun and chaos of New York City was kind of absent."

Suddenly, it was a New York fraught with challenges for Liang.

Professionally: For a time, Liang's exclusive role as an internal medicine PA was working with COVID-19 patients, helping initiate treatment plans as those stricken with the virus were admitted from the emergency department and facilitating the management of those patients. Liang had many what he calls "tough discussions" with family members.

"I guess the way the day felt changed a lot," Liang said. "It was a very unsettling feeling. I was keeping in constant communication with family members who were calling the hospital. I had to initiate these conversations a lot of people haven't had with their loved ones ... some of them were in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I was asking, 'If there's an emergency and the person needs to be resuscitated, what would you like to have done?'"

Personally: Liang is of Asian descent. John was born in Taiwan and Shirley in Malaysia. With the spread of the news that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, there came a swell of racist attacks against the Asian community. Liang worried about himself as well as his parents back in Norwich.

"It's already concerning not getting sick, but it's really sad that we also have to worry about possible discrimination we have to face," he said. "I wasn't sure what role it was to play, then there were stories about violent crimes and you saw how ruthless some of these xenophobic attacks can be.

"It's already concerning to have a son who works in health care, now my parents had to worry about me being a target of a racial attack. My dad told me, 'maybe when you can, carry your white coat, wear your scrubs, show the public you're trying to help them.' ... It definitely has been scary."

One hell of a welcome to New York City for Liang.

But just like every other instance, he has done his best to persevere.

Former NFA cross country coach Chad Johnson has known Liang since he was in the fifth grade or so when his older brother Kevin ran for the Wildcats.

"A few kids show up on day one and they've just got it all," Johnson said. "Kyle was one of those kids from day one. I never had to worry about him in terms of discipline. He stuck to his morals and ethics and made everyone around him a better person, too.

"One day he'd be hanging out with athletes, the next day talking to art students. He can talk to adults. He's always been that way. He's always been willing and able to wear his heart on his sleeve. The passion is what drove him into the medical field. You look at his YouTube videos (of Liang dancing), you look at the poetry he's written. Passionate is a great word to describe him."

***

At NFA, Liang was president of the Class of 2013. He was a member of the school's student advisory board, athletic leadership council, National Honor Society, Science National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, president of the Varsity 'N' Club and captain of the cross country team.

Johnson used to joke that when you called up the NFA home page, there was a picture of Liang ... only it wasn't a joke. At www.norwichfreeacademy.com, there was a photo of Liang with the storied NFA campus as his backdrop.

As a senior, Liang was the 2012 ECC cross country champion, winning the 3.1-mile race at Norwich Golf Course in 17 minutes, 9 seconds. In indoor track he won the ECC 1,000- and 1,600-meter events and he anchored the Wildcats' sprint medley relay team as it captured Class LL and State Open championships. In outdoor track he finished third in the 800 in his final New England meet.

"I think NFA is a great place to go and help you explore your individuality," Liang said. "They promote and celebrate that. In college and after college, in a lot of ways I feel like I am someone who has a lot of different interests because NFA encouraged that.

"... I think there's a lot of value in showing up to (athletic) practice every single day whether or not you want to be there and no matter where you're at in your life and where you're at in your week. It helped carry me through school and it helped me through now."

***

Liang was about 20 when he began writing poetry. He is the author of "How to Build a House," winner of the 2017 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Contest.

His poem "A Lesson on Immunology" was recently published by Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Liang explained that his mom described a video of Chinese people wearing face masks being attacked on the street. He wrote, in part:

"my mom calls to tell me the Chinese aunties

are sharing videos on WeChat

of Asians in white masks

getting their lungs

ripped out their chests

by white men searching for weapons

of mass destruction

she cries there's no use

in wearing white

masks in public

we're under attack

either way

our bodies at war

with the world and a virus."

"On my days off I've been spending a lot of time writing," Liang said. "I feel like the hospital has given me so much to think about. It helps me put my thoughts into one single place. ... It was one of those things I felt like I should have been doing it for longer. It became part of my life so naturally."

***

Johnson said that one of his saddest days as a coach is always the trip home from the New England meet, when his athletes have just completed their seasons.

"I say, 'You think that track and field at NFA is your life, but it's insignificant compared to everything else in your life. You don't know that yet,'" Johnson said. "You don't talk to them as much anymore because they're too busy being in the big city doing big things."

Johnson was speaking in general terms, but now here is Liang, one of NFA's finest, doing just that.

While he was studying to be a physician assistant, Liang completed his internal medicine rotation at New York-Presbyterian. At the time, he was sleeping on his grandmother's futon in Brooklyn, rising at 4:50 a.m. to catch the subway and arrive at the hospital by 6:30.

"I was just very sure this is where I wanted to work," he said. "As soon as they offered the job, I took it."

At the heart of the COVID-19 crisis, Liang said the hospital prepared by reassigning personnel to departments where they were most needed. As the situation rapidly changed and hundreds of coronavirus patients flooded the building, the hospital administration constantly updated the staff via email and live video messaging.

"It's such a big hospital, there's so many moving parts," Liang said. "The people here are so bright and so intelligent. They're unbelievably successful and so great at what they do. I just try to be the best PA I can be at one of the best hospitals in the country. I don't regret my decision or question my decision.

"I love the hospital. I love New York City."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Editor's note: This is the fourth story in an occasional series about former local athletes who went on to be part of the medical profession.

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