Kurtland Ma: The Too-Short Life of a Smart Man Known for His Smile

On Kurtland Ma’s Facebook page, there are lots of photos from his travels—some of him doing handstands in front of scenic backdrops such as the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris or in front of the Taj Mahal. Friendly and quick to smile, Ma loved to travel and made new friends wherever he went.

Kurtland Ma
Kurtland Ma

Ma, 34, also treasured his longtime friends and his family. He often returned from his travels with souvenirs, little trinkets for loved ones.

Now those loved ones are reminiscing about Ma’s life while mourning his tragic death. Ma, an emergency room doctor who recently moved to West Hollywood, was found stabbed to death on Saturday in the Palm Avenue apartment that he shared with boyfriend, Andre Damiane Davids. Davids, 36, is being held under suspicion of murdering  Ma in lieu of $1 million bail.

While the circumstances that led to Ma’s murder are not clear, some of Ma’s friends said that Davids was possessive and didn’t want Ma to associate with them. Several said that Ma was planning to end his relationship with Davids when he was murdered.

Cautioning that she wasn’t addressing the relationship between Ma and Davids, Mary Case, coordinator of the STOP Domestic Violence program at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said that most murders of one partner by the other occur when the victim suggests he or she wants to end the relationship.

Case said that a key warning sign of an abusive relationship (which may or may not include actual physical violence) is one person having all the power and control. The abuser often isolates the other person, shows extreme jealousy and doesn’t take responsibility for his or her actions.

Case recommends referring possible victims to professional and confidential resources so that they can figure out the safest way to get out of the situation. The center offers LGBT domestic violence services. Which can be accessed by calling (323) 860-5806 or emailing domesticviolence@lagaycenter.org.

Ma’s death certainly has stunned his wide circle friends, who describe him as always happy. “I asked him why he always smiled,” said Christian Sipaco, a nurse in New York City who knew Ma when he was in medical school. “He described it as his ‘perma-grin.’ He said ‘I can’t take it off’.”

Growing up in Arizona, Ma showed a keen intellect from an early age. When he was in middle school in Scottsdale, he took a bus to a high school to take advanced math. That’s how he met lifelong friend Anne Chung, who took the bus from another middle school. Later, the two went to high school together in Phoenix.

Kurtland Ma doing his iconic handstand in front of the Taj Mahal
Kurtland Ma doing his iconic handstand in front of the Taj Mahal

“He was so smart,” said Chung, an emergency room doctor in Boston who also noted Ma’s infectious smile. And it seemed to come to him easily—“it seemed like he never had to study.”

Ma shined academically, achieving an SAT score that came near the perfect 1600 mark. In 1997, as a junior, he was named a Presidential Scholar, honoring him as one of the nation’s most distinguished high school students. But his intelligence didn’t define him, Chung said; he always had a good school-life balance. He played tennis on the varsity team.

“Growing up, he was always happy,” Chung said. “He was one of the most caring people I knew. He always had a smile in his face—always happy, always laughing. He loved his friends; he loved his family. He was just such a good person.”

Ma was one of Chung’s best friends in high school. One day, she told Ma that he was her soul mate and that she loved him. He said he loved her, but like a sister. That briefly broke her heart, but she recovered quickly and their friendship continued unfazed. After high school, the two remained in close touch. One day, Chung asked Ma why he never told her about women he was dating. She thought he had kept quiet on the subject to avoid hurting her feelings. He told her that women just didn’t like him that way, but Chung couldn’t believe that was true. Finally, he told her, “I just don’t like girls that way.”

Chung said she was sad to realize that Ma hadn’t felt comfortable revealing that he was gay. His acknowledgement of his sexual orientation didn’t change their friendship, and Ma occasionally would mention men he was seeing.

After high school, Ma went to Yale for both undergraduate and medical school. Michael Gottesman, who roomed with Ma for a time at Yale, recalled him as generous. “He was there for you emotionally and also just generous in all the little ways too,” Gottesman said. “If you went over to his house, you often left with some sort of treats. In college we were in New Haven, and he would go into New York, and he’d pick up some treats from Chinese bakers. If you went over to his room, you’d always share those with him.”

Ma did his residency in New York at Jacobi Medical Center-Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 2010, he wowed his teachers by diagnosing a man who’d recently eaten barracuda in the Bahamas as suffering from a rare affliction known as ciguatera poisoning. The diagnosis was so impressive that The New York Times wrote about it under the heading “Diagnosis: Fish Tale.”

One of the many friends that Ma made While he lived in New York City was Ray Nelson. Nelson remembers Ma as a “fun-loving guy” who maintained strong relationships both with friends from high school and from his medical residency. He’d readily travel to attend the wedding of a friend he hadn’t seen in years.

“He was just a great guy,” said Nelson, who now lives in Atlanta. “He loved life.”

It was also in New York that Ma met Tomny Lor, and they became fast friends.

“He was instantly like a brother to me,” said Lor, whom Ma would jokingly call “Dajie” (big sister in Mandarin Chinese). “He was probably one of my most amazing friends … His star was so bright, and at the same time he was so caring.”

Sipaco, who said he knew Ma for about ten years, was part of a close circle of Ma’s friends who traveled together and dined together.

“He is one of those guys that, once you know him, you’ve got a feeling that you’re going to be friends for life,” he said. Sipaco said Ma and he both volunteered for Medevent, an organization of about 40 medical professionals in New York City that works to educate LGBT people about the risks of drug use and unsafe sex.

Ma left New York City in 2012 to go back to Arizona to briefly live with his parents. He was eager to spend time with them, according to Sipaco. Ma made a Facebook post in July 2012 marking the start of his “new life here in AZ.”.

Ma knew Andre Davids in New York.  But it was only in September 2013, while he was living in Arizona, that Ma made it “Facebook official” that he was in a relationship, posting a photo of himself with Davids. Some of Ma’s friends worried about their relationship. Things seemed different when he was with Davids, they said. While Ma was outgoing and social, Davids didn’t want to spend time with Ma’s friends. Sipaco found that unusual, given the closeness of Ma and his circle of friends to one another. “We actually got surprised that one day he showed up, and he had a boyfriend,” he said of Ma. “We decided that we’d get to know (Davids), and we’d take him into our circle of friends.” But Davids appeared uninterested in joining, Sipaco said. He seemed jealous, several of Ma’s friends said. Lor and Ma went to a gay Disney event last summer. After that, Lor said, it was hard for him to get time with Ma. Sipaco said he and Ma both attended the wedding of two gay friends in Paris last year and that Davids came along. But Sipaco said that, surprisingly, he and his friends saw Ma only briefly while they were all in Paris together.

Recently, Ma and Davids decided to move to West Hollywood and live together. Ma hadn’t planned to stay in Arizona forever, Chung said, and “California was the next step.” Lor said that Ma was looking forward to being more involved in the LGBT community, for which West Hollywood is a major center; he was excited about that part of his life.

Ma got a job at Memorial Hospital in Gardena, and he rented an apartment on Palm Avenue in West Hollywood. Nelson said that Ma began renting the place in early February, though because Ma had been traveling—taking a trip to Japan—he didn’t take up residence right away. Ma arrived in WeHo on March 24. It was less than a week later that sheriff’s deputies responded to the call and found Ma stabbed to death on his kitchen floor. Davids, who had ingested a large number of pills in what deputies called an apparent suicide attempt, was in the bathroom.

While Ma no longer is alive, his friends are reluctant to let him go.

Sipaco stumbled for a word to summarize his feelings about Ma’s death, eventually coming up with “heartsick.” He also recalled that Ma didn’t like to say “goodbye.”

“He was never one to say goodbye,” Sipaco said “He was always like, ‘I’ll see you later’. Goodbye seems final to me. My friends and I, we say ‘goodbye’ is not ‘goodbye,’ we’ll meet again.”

Henry E. (Hank) Scott contributed reporting to this story.

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Pixie
Pixie
3 years ago

So that idiot killed his boyfriend and he even tried to commit suicide without knowing that he have to suffer a great pain because he just killed an innocent human and hurt the emotions of everyone who knows kurtland ma, 12 years is not sufficient, he needs to be given psychiatric treatment also ,if he gets released after 12 years. But i hope he dies in prison that will be the best punishment

sasha
sasha
7 years ago

what a horrible and tragic story. I never heard of this but just happened to come across the article. This guy seemed amazing and the world lost a great guy and doctor who would have helped so many more. like him i am a huge traveler and so i loved looking at his travel pics on his FB page and am sure I would have had a lot in common with him. such a waste to have his life cut so short over nothing. deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Kram
Kram
7 years ago

A tragic waste

Epennyman
Epennyman
7 years ago

Dr Ma and I worked together at Phoenix Baptist Hospitals Emergency Room in Arizona. He was an exceptional Dr and a great friend. It is very unfortunate that someone like him was taken from us, seems like he had so much left to do here. Words cannot express how we feel in this moment of sorrow. Today we will bury a friend. God took an Angel!

Allan Quinn
Allan Quinn
7 years ago

I didn’t know Kurt well but he was friends with many of my good friends. He sounds like a wonderful human being that made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. This is such a tragedy that I cannot seem to wrap my head around. Such a senseless waste of a beautiful life! I feel so awful for his family. When the initial shock of this has worn off the rest of us will go on with our lives; they will be devastated and haunted by this forever!

Florian
Florian
7 years ago

I will miss you KLM. These are bleak days. He and I were very different in pretty much everything but he was my dear friend nevertheless. The senselessness of this crime made me speechless. We worry about so many unimportant things. And we take so much for granted – friendships, love, life itself. We will all have to remember him with happiness, not with sadness. That is what Kurtland would want us to do.

Lu Zhang
Lu Zhang
7 years ago

Kurtland Ma went to China to my high school to teach English for a year, after he graduated from Yale. I am one of his students. I still remember his energy, liveliness and sense of humor. One student asked what does the word “demolish” mean, and he illustrated the word by demolishing a piece of chalk. I will never forget that word for the rest of my life, as well as his smiling face. I will miss Kurt forever. May you rest in peace, my teacher!

Derek
Derek
7 years ago

Such a heartbreaking story…this has depressed me for days now. I couldn’t stab an animal much less a human being, I don’t know these things have to happen to the nicest people.

VickyKafkaBCN
7 years ago

Kurt was a friend to us when he lived here in the Barcelona area 2004-2006…nearly 1 years ago, but Kurt always left his mark wherever he went. This article’s title points out his smile, but personally i think that what was BEHIND that smile was far, far more important: a man with inextinguishable optimism, and a man who was willing and happy to talk with just about anyone and felt comfortable with them and made them comfortable too. he was especially good at gathering together diverse people for social events. In a community like ours that is often so clicquish… Read more »

Kelli
Kelli
7 years ago

My Mother worked with him in Arizona and spoke so fondly of Dr. Ma. She is heartbroken. He had just moved from Arizona just weeks prior to this horrible tragedy. I’m new to LA and would’ve loved to have had a friend like him here. Though we can’t get him back, I surely hope justice can be served. Dr. Ma still had so much life to live. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends across the globe.

jonny real
7 years ago

man, he was a good, good kid. he will be missed, for sure. this is terrible.

Ted
Ted
7 years ago

RIP, Ma. It’s so sad this is how I know about you.

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