Leon and Sam Cheng: Meeting their match in medicine

Brothers Leon Cheng, left and Sam Cheng, are both medical students at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
Brothers Leon Cheng, left and Sam Cheng, are both medical students at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

Leon and Sam Cheng, twin brothers and fourth-year medical students, remember how they developed their fascination with the medical field. The brothers frequently visited family friends Chintana and Somporn Puangsuvan, either playing or helping with chores around the house. Dr. Somporn, as they called him, practiced general surgery at a nearby hospital and ran a clinic in their hometown of Caruthersville, MO – near the ‘Bootheel’ region.

The boys would listen intently to stories about unique patient cases and steal glances at medical literature inside the Puangsuvan home.

“Our actual grandmother lived in China at that time, but we were really close family friends with Ms. Puangsuvan, so we called her our grandmother,” Leon said. “She really inspired us a lot — her daughter actually went to medical school at Mizzou when we were kids.”

That was their first exposure to the University of Missouri. Later, in 2014, they visited the campus through the Missouri Scholars Academy, and knew they wanted to study at MU.

With both brothers wanting to become doctors, Leon and Sam understood the competitive nature of medical school admissions. They always competed against each other, comparing who got the better test score, who read the most books, who did the best in the class. It continued well into college and medical school.

“We held each other pretty accountable for our grades,” Sam said. “If someone's maybe slacking off on homework, we'd be like, ‘Oh, you need to pick it up.’ On exams, we don't inherently do it, but we try to compete. I think that's just helped get us motivation.”

As undergraduates at MU, they both applied and were accepted into the Bryant Scholars program, which encourages students from rural backgrounds to pursue medicine. Students receive provisional acceptance to the MU School of Medicine if they meet select requirements.

“The vision with the Bryant Scholars program is to get any aspiring physician students that are from rural areas, and you foster them and have them experience medical school,” Leon said. “Then they're more likely to, once they finish residency, go back into those rural areas and practice.”

Having grown up in a town with fewer than 6,000 people, the Chengs know the value of having health care close by.

“There were only one or two primary care physicians in Caruthersville back then as a kid,” Leon said. “I want to serve people in the rural places because, from my experience, if you wanted to see a specialist, you’d have to drive at least an hour or more.”

Both Leon and Sam plan to return to their roots after completing their medical education journeys, favoring the rural way of life.

“The environment of a rural area in general is more appealing to me. It's less fast paced,” Sam said. “You don't feel like you're always in a rush, in terms of living in a rural area, and then also you kind of know everyone that's in town. I like that sense of community.”

For Leon, that community connection is a benefit to practicing rural medicine. There’s more time to be one-on-one with patients, and it’s impossible to avoid them while out and about.

“We get to see patients for who they are as a person,” Leon said.

Their academic medicine journeys are not over yet, though – there is still residency to complete. On March 15 during the annual medical school Match Day ceremony, Leon and Sam Cheng officially learned they will continue at MU under the integrated residency programs, but for the first time in their journey, they will take diverging paths. Sam is pursuing family medicine, and Leon is specializing in internal medicine.

“I’m more interested in adults and taking care of chronic issues,” Leon said.

Leon is also interested in specializing further, in fields like cardiology, gastroenterology or rheumatology, and wants to keep his options open. He prefers the hospital environment and rounding on patients. Sam, on the other hand, likes the variedness of family medicine — the patient population, range of medical knowledge and day-to-day procedures.

“When I was at Fayette (Family Medicine clinic), one patient could be having a procedure done, like a toenail removal. The next patient could be a follow up from hypertension or other medication,” Sam said. “There are just a lot of things to keep you occupied during the day.”

Sam will continue working at the Fayette Family Medicine clinic for residency. For Leon, the internal residency program is in Columbia, but he hopes there will be chances to work in more rural areas as well. As the brothers embark on their separate paths, they’re proud of each other, and excited for themselves, too.

“It’s nice to be your own person,” Leon said. “It’s good that we have diverging interests, that way we can practice more of what we're interested in.”