Medical school mourns ‘tragic loss’ for the psychiatry field

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Navdeep Kang, an undergraudate alumnus and fourth-year medical student at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences died Wednesday from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.

When Navdeep Kang entered the School of Medicine and Health Sciences three years ago, he connected with his classmates quickly, often rooting for Pittsburgh teams with them at a Dupont Circle sports bar.

The Sewickley, Pa. native’s soft-spoken personality and easygoing outlook was refreshing amid the stresses of medical school, several of his friends said, and Kang would often take the time to remind them that one exam wouldn’t make or break their careers.

The fourth-year medical student and undergraduate alumnus died Wednesday from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident in Maryland. He was 25 years old.

Kang was in the middle of deciding which psychiatric medical residency programs he would apply to, said associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science Julia Frank, who acted as his adviser for the past year. He had told her he wanted to work with the mentally ill, taking care of people who didn’t have others to look after them.

“Mental health is the best barometer of wellness,” he wrote in an essay about his time working in a psychiatric hospital. “I’m endlessly grateful to have been a small part of that bridge for so many.”

The two met Wednesday morning to review Kang’s application essays. He was interested in programs in the Pacific Northwest, where he could enjoy the outdoors and pursue his passion for medicine.

“He embraced every aspect of psychiatry that he was exposed to. Lots of other students don’t express this kind of enthusiasm and joy in psychiatric work that he seemed to have,” Frank said.

Wednesday afternoon, Kang was struck by a car while riding a motorcycle in Potomac, Md. He and the driver of a BMW SUV were going in opposite directions on the road when the SUV tried to turn left, crashing into Kang.

He received first aid at the scene and was brought to a nearby hospital, where he succumbed to life-threatening injuries. The Montgomery County Police Department is investigating the collision.

Kang had completed rotations at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institution, Children’s National Hospital and the GW Hospital, Frank said, and he told her that “he felt like a fish in water,” during his psychiatric rotations.

Frank said Kang had felt incredibly loyal to GW, choosing to remain in Foggy Bottom for medical school after graduating magna cum laude from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in French languages and literature in 2011.

His father, Jasbir Kang, said his son had loved interacting with patients during his psychiatric rotations. Navdeep Kang had originally planned to become an emergency room physician, but later decided to explore other specialities before he settled on his father’s field, psychiatry.

Navdeep Kang rode a motorcycle for the first time when he was 16, Jasbir Kang said. He asked for a motorcycle before he graduated high school, and he nursed the idea for about seven years before his father allowed him to buy a bike.

“When he asked me this time, I could not say no to him,” Jasbir Kang said.

Whitney Thomas met Navdeep Kang at the beginning of their first year of medical school, and both were specializing in psychiatry. She said his death was a “tragic loss” for the field, and that he set an example for how to balance school and time with friends.

“There’s life out there that’s bigger than the next test, so enjoy the things around you. He always got that,” she said.

Aleksandar Jeremic, an associate professor of biological sciences, hired Kang to work on a diabetes study in his lab while he was an undergraduate student. Kang quickly emerged as a leader, teaching others techniques for collecting data and producing impressive results himself.

Kang worked in the lab for two semesters as an underclassman, Jeremic said, though he returned after to advise new research assistants.

“He was able to manage both research and his schedule and being a good student, and that goes to show how good and mature he was, how bright he was,” Jeremic said. “He had a sense of honor – that’s very important. He inserted it into everything he was doing.”

Jamil Hasan, a friend of Kang’s from the medical school, said the two climbed Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley this summer, which was one of Kang’s favorite hikes. He would often rave about an old man who sold ginger ale on the side of the mountain, Hasan said, although the two hadn’t seen the man on their last trip.

Kang would often invite large groups of friends to his family’s beach house in the Outer Banks, where they would swim, chase crabs on the beach and barbecue, Hasan said. He loved the outdoors – whether he was running, biking, drawing, going to baseball games or visiting the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.

“If he didn’t do all these things, he would probably have ended up being fat because the only thing he was capable of cooking were brownies, which I’m pretty sure he ate every day,” Hasan joked.

Kang reflected on his experience in medical school in a student blog called “in-Training,” detailing why physicians struggle to leave their jobs behind at the hospital.

“Our training sculpts us and shapes us, but it isn’t something that we simply leave in our white coat when we go home. Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘medicine is a way of life.’ Learning that our training shapes us, as people, and what that means for the people in our lives, is hard,” he wrote.

Kirsten Norrell, a Pittsburgh native who would often watch sports games with Kang, said one of the times she’d seen him most happy was when he stood outside the Verizon Center after the Penguins beat the Capitals two years ago.

He often wore Penguins gear around GW’s campus and found ways to bring friends together to watch sports, including throwing a combined birthday and Super Bowl party every year.

Scott Schroth, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ associate dean for administration, who was also one of Kang’s advisers, said he guided Kang when he was considering a specialty in psychiatry. Schroth said it was “challenging in a funny way” to help Kang weigh his possible career paths.

“I think everyone that knew him well really felt that was right. His father is a psychiatrist. I think initially he thought he would end up being something else, but at the end of the day, I think that really resonated with him,” Schroth said.

Brianna Gurciullo contributed reporting.

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