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SFMMS Spotlights Two Father-Son Physician Duos in Honor of Father’s Day

Drs. David and Robert Sperling are father and son cardiologists who work together at Cardiovascular Associates of Marin and San Francisco. Dr. David Sperling joined with another physician to form the practice in 1975, which has now grown to include 17 physicians. He also started the catheterization lab at Marin General Hospital. His son, Dr. Robert Sperling, is now the director of that same cath lab.

Dr. Martin Leung, a Hong Kong native, has been a general practice physician in San Francisco since the 1980s. His son, Dr. Man-Kit Leung, is an otolaryngologist in San Francisco and Immediate Past-President of SFMMS.

These "partners in medicine" represent two of the many father-child physician pairs serving the communities of San Francisco and Marin. SFMMS sat down with each of them to learn how medicine became a family business and how they have inspired one another.

The Sperlings

Why did you decide to become a physician?
David Sperling (father): I was an English and Pre-Med double major. I took an aptitude test which indicated I would be a good teacher, but I didn’t want to teach. It was an exciting time for cardiology interventions, and I decided to join with another cardiologist in practice.

What are some of your early memories about your dad as a physician?
Robert Sperling (son): I remember my father speaking fondly about one of his patients who had bypass surgery. He talked about him as a person – [the patient] was a captain of a ship and my father would go fishing with him. I remember thinking how remarkable it was for a doctor to have that kind of relationship with a patient.

When did you decide to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a physician?
Robert: There was no big ‘a-ha’ moment.
David: Robert was a Biology major but I didn’t think he had any interest in medicine. I took him with me on some rounds.
Robert: I was drawn to the profession through osmosis I guess!

What do you love most about practicing your specialty?
David: Treating patients – I enjoy the relationships I have with them and helping them stay well or get better.
Robert: I think it’s that you can help patients quickly. I enjoy doing angioplasty – it’s very satisfying to see a patient who is having a heart attack feel better quickly and then be able to develop a relationship with them over the years.

What is it like practicing together?
Robert: It’s one of the most enjoyable things – having spent 15 ½ years working with my dad, sharing the same field, and consulting about patients. When I got out of training, he would ask me about a procedure – he was genuinely interested in my opinion.
David: We share a consultation room. I find it very stimulating – he’s extraordinarily well-trained, and I love being around the energy of younger physicians. I rely on Robert and on my partners.

How would you describe your dad’s approach to medicine and patients?
Robert: He’s very thorough and dedicated. He explains things to patients and communicates with them often. I learned a lot by listening to him on the phone talking to his patients– as a kid, I remember saying to my mom, “I never want to work that hard.” I had an understanding about the fact that there were really two qualities my dad possessed as a physician – scientific and humanistic.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given throughout your career so far?
Robert: In my training, they emphasized that medicine will demand 110% of you and that you have to set boundaries.
David: Listen to your wife. Pay attention to details. Treat patients the way you’d want to be treated and listen to what they are saying.

What are some of the biggest challenges or opportunities you see in healthcare in the next 3-5 years?
David: We are becoming extremely computer-dependent, with no paper records any more. Medicare is requiring many new hoops to go through. Our group’s affiliation with the hospital poses many opportunities in the future.
Robert: I tend to put my head down and try to stay focused on my patients.

If you weren’t a physician, what profession would you try?
David: Architecture.
Robert: Teaching high school English or Philosophy.

The Leungs

Why did you decide to become a physician?
Martin Leung (father): When I was five years old, my mom died from complications of childbirth while delivering my younger brother. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to become a physician.

What are some of your early memories of your dad as a physician?
Man-Kit Leung (son): I remember doing homework in my father’s back office in Chinatown while he was seeing patients on the weekend. I recall thinking Chinatown was such so crowded and noisy, and I wondered why my dad wanted to work there. Later, I did a summer volunteer program at Chinese Hospital and in the process, discovered my cultural inheritance. I learned to appreciate that despite its shortcomings, Chinatown was where the immigrant Chinese felt a sense of comfort and belonging. I never would have imagined that 30 years later, I would have my own office in Chinatown.

When did you decide to follow in your dad’s footsteps and become a physician?
Man-Kit: I’d say late high school and college.
Martin: Man-Kit helped at Chinese Hospital during high school. He talked with elderly patients in the hospital explaining things in Cantonese. He was very patient with them. He went on to attend Harvard for his undergraduate degree and then to UCSF medical school after graduating college.

Why did you choose your specialty?
Martin: I was going to be an OB/GYN but I had an allergy to latex gloves – we didn’t have alternatives back then. I also wasn't sure I wanted to be in surgery for many hours at a time.
Man-Kit: Although I planned on specializing in family medicine when I applied to medical school, I became interested in surgery during my training. Of all the surgical sub-specialties, I found ENT was the most diverse in terms of procedures--ranging from fine ear microsurgery to large head and neck oncologic resections-- as well as in terms of patients--ranging from newborns to centenarians. I also liked that the head and neck region houses all of the five senses--sight, sound, smell, taste, touch--that we use to interact with others and our environment.

What do you love most about practicing your specialty?
Martin: Well, I liked it a lot more 30 years ago! There was less paperwork and insurance problems to deal with. I liked it when I could have more of a relationship with my patients.
Man-Kit: The diversity of patients and problems that I can care for.

How would you describe each other's approach to medicine?
Martin: He’s really caring. I refer patients to him. I’m very confident in his skills.
Man-Kit: Patients really appreciate my dad – he has long-lasting friendships with them. He has a deep concern for their well-being not just on a professional level but on a personal level as well. I’ve really learned about the joy of being a doctor from him.

What is the most important thing you learned from each other about the practice of medicine?
Martin: He is much better than I am with medical records. I have a hard time with electronic medical records.
Man-Kit: It’s important to care for the person as a whole – not just the health issue they came to see you for.

If you weren’t a physician, what profession would you try?
Man-Kit: Something in public policy or government.
Martin: Taxi driver – I love driving and meeting people.