Summer 2024
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‘We’re gonna do this together’

Professor Profile: Daniel Kang

Daniel Kang’s journey to the George Fox DPT program began in a hot cadaver lab where he nearly fainted – and was sealed with a fateful phone call By Kimberly Felton

Cadavers. This might be why Daniel Kang did not want to go into medicine. He thought he was merely rebelling against family expectations. As Korean immigrants, it was customary to enter medicine and send the money home. All of his uncles are physicians. His dad is a physicist, but only because he could not run fast enough to pass the physical exam required for medical school at that time.

Running felt like a good option that hot afternoon in the cadaver lab at Loma Linda University, where Kang was pursuing a master’s degree in physical therapy. Ventilation was minimal in the three rooms prepared for the 75 med students. Anatomy class had begun, and draped bodies waited. Kang does not recall any air conditioning, but the memory of the smell has not faded.

“I’m walking up there; I’m not talking to anybody,” he recalls. “We’re just being herded. Some people are trying to be cool.”

Kang put himself in the middle of the pack, afraid he would run if he were at the back. He joined a group of three students he did not know, gathered around a body. Teaching assistants circled the room, reminding everyone that this was a sacred space – a place to show honor and respect to those allowing their bodies to be used so that students can learn. Then they began to pull back the sheets covering the cadavers.

“When they started the unveiling, I literally just started going down,” Kang says. “And my friend Ruben” – this was Kang’s introduction to Ruben – “grabbed me by the arm and held me up and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get through this together.’ If he didn’t help me up, I probably would have fainted. Ruben holding me up, it was life-changing for me.”

Today Kang, a professor of physical therapy at George Fox University, teaches from this humble beginning. He’s the physical therapist who wanted to be a bartender – one like Sam in Cheers, who knows everybody’s name.

He’s also the executive dean for the Wellness Enterprise who once failed out of college, and then graduated top of his PT school.

He’s the former small business owner who operated his own physical therapy clinic and lived in his dream home on a dock in Ventura, California, with his wife and kids, and with a seven-minute commute to the office. That office is where his life took a turn toward the Northwest.

One beautiful day, Kang was consciously thanking God for the beach, his family, his home and his business. As he opened his computer, a banner for George Fox University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program popped up. He knew God was prompting him to call the phone number on the banner. Tyler Cuddeford, founding director of the program, answered.

“I remember clearly, I was supposed to tell him that PT school is going to change many people’s lives, and that I’d be praying for him,” Kang recalls. “I didn’t know this guy from Adam.” But Kang said what he felt he needed to say. “I remember Tyler saying he was really shocked [that someone would call].”

Cuddeford asked to call him back. Kang figured he would be hit up for a donation. Instead, Cuddeford asked, “What would the DPT program look like if you built it?”

“You have to go beyond academics,” Kang responded. “You have to have really good clinical people.” A therapist, to Kang’s way of thinking, needs to be like Sam the bartender: know their patient’s name, know their story, know their struggle. That’s where healing begins.

Conversations continued, and three years later Kang sold his practice and moved with his family to Oregon, becoming part of something he believes can change the world.

As he teaches students, Kang remembers Ruben pulling him up and saying, “We’re gonna do this together.” He remembers Fred, an older student in PT school, who helped him memorize the anatomy, teaching him study skills along the way. He remembers being humbled by his own lack of ability, and shares the stories.

“My hope is that we will come out of our silos and start caring for the patient together. That’s the way we will fight burnout for all professions and give the absolute best care for the patient.”

“The biggest thing that scares me is being a fake,” he says. “I try to be as honest as I can. Becoming honest with oneself is actually really difficult.”

It took Kang three years to figure out how to teach the skill he excelled in: being an excellent clinician, caring for his patients. “The best compliment I get is, ‘He’s teaching me how to do it,’” he says. “I want the DPT students to be the absolute best clinicians in the world – but at the same time, I want them to learn how not to burn out.”

This gets to the core of Kang’s passion: treating the whole person, and teaching the whole student.

People living in chronic pain are Kang’s best illustration of those needing holistic treatment. A course on chronic pain previously named the “pain course” has changed to “person-centered approach.” Figuring out that pain, he says, always goes back to relationship – relationship with the patient, and collaboration with other caregivers. “My hope is that we will come out of our silos and start caring for the patient together,” Kang says. “That’s the way we will fight burnout for all professions and give the absolute best care for the patient.”

Teaching the whole student, for Kang, includes the spiritual. It’s the bio-psychosocial-spiritual model. Teaching the whole student is not just about taking an interest in them; it’s also helping students ask themselves, “Who am I as a person?” and “What does God have for me?”

Though a professor and dean now, Kang has held every position in the PT industry. “I knew I wanted to be with people,” he says, “but I didn’t know what my gifting was. I accepted the Lord at age 21, and that correlates perfectly with finding my vocation. My purpose started coming from the Lord.

“The No. 1 thing was honoring God, and second was teaching our students to be excellent clinicians. That’s been my job ever since.”

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