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Pianist battled his way back from crippling disease

When you hear Meng-Chieh Liu igniting the piano keyboard with his formidable sound and style, you would never guess he once battled a debilitating disease that left his body frail and paralyzed, and nearly cost him his life.

Liu, a prominent concert artist and member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians, will make his Chicago recital debut Thursday as part of Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts' inaugural piano festival, which runs through Sunday. Several of his students also will take part in concerts, master classes and lecture-recitals celebrating the piano program begun during the 1930s at what was then called Chicago Musical College.

Once a competition-winning piano prodigy in his native Taiwan, Liu was embarking on a major performing career following graduation from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music some 15 years ago. Twenty-three at the time, he came down with a bad cough that soon morphed into something far more sinister. His hands grew stiff and he began losing weight and strength. Within months he could not walk unaided and barely could lift his limbs.

His doctors were perplexed. Neither the prescribed physical therapy nor chemotherapy could slow the advance of his mysterious malady. After Liu went into cardiac arrest and was put in intensive care at a hospital in Philadelphia, his ailment diagnosed as vasculitis, an exceedingly rare disorder of theimmune system that inflames the victim's vascular system. For six months he remained immobile in his hospital bed, his body shrunken to 90 pounds of skin over bone.

So atrophied were his hands, particularly his right hand, that, following a 1997 operation, he barely could depress the keys on an electronic keyboard.

"It was very difficult for me to imagine I would ever be able to play the piano again," the pianist recalls.

Only after anti-cancer drugs were administered did his condition begin to improve. He put on weight and started to regain strength and flexibility. Two months after surgeons implanted a titanium nail to replace a withered tendon in his right index finger, he was practicing the piano again. What began as a plan to relearn the piano as an avocation turned into a crusade to relaunch his playing and teaching career.

Liu's miraculous path to recovery became an inspiring study in iron-willed determination. In 1998, he gave his first public recital since the onset of the disease; that was at the Curtis Institute, where he had been shouldering a stressful teaching load he believes brought on his condition.

Despite doctors' dire predictions, Liu is back making music.

"It was a very difficult comeback," says the 38-year-old pianist (whose full name is pronounced "Mung-Chee-eh Lee-oo") today. "I was very grateful to have been given a second chance."

He now commutes every other week between Philadelphia and Chicago to fulfill his teaching commitments at Curtis and Roosevelt, where he has held a faculty post since 2006.

Now that the disease is in remission, Liu can forget the ordeal he lived to talk about. "These days I am only thinking about what lies ahead," he says.

Meng-Chieh Liu will perform works by Debussy and Barber in a solo recital at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave. 312-341-2145,

Classical music critic