Hero Physician Slain in CA Attack Remembered as 'One in a Million'

Sharon Donovan

May 31, 2022

The murder earlier this month of John Cheng, MD, a family physician who died trying to disarm a shooter inside a Taiwanese church, has left members of the Asian American community in Southern California reeling.

Dr John Cheng

Cheng, 52, was struck with three bullets while rushing toward the gunman, according to a witness account published in The Orange County Register. The killings came in the wake of the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and 10 days before 19 children and two teachers were fatally shot May 24 at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Colleagues and patients called Cheng's final actions an act of heroism that paralleled his work in the community and in practicing medicine.

Cheng was a family care and sports medicine physician in Aliso Viejo. He is survived by his wife and two children,

On May 15, Cheng was among the parishioners at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, where a group of mostly elderly Taiwanese church members had gathered for a banquet. He rushed forward when David Wenwei Chou, 68, first began firing, suffering fatal wounds.

When the gunman's weapon jammed, other members of the congregation tackled Chou and tied him up with an extension cord, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Law enforcement authorities believe the crime was motivated by political hatred targeted at the Taiwanese community.

In a 2-minute YouTube video on his website, Cheng credited his father as his inspiration to become a doctor.

He said that, coming from a family of physicians, "I saw the care that my father imbued on his patients in a small community in east Texas. I saw the community rally around him and embrace him as a physician and I loved that. When we are interacting with patients, it's one-on-one. We try to meet patients where they are. Some people are ready for a total life change and some are not ready. We personalize it to try to get the person moving in the right direction at the right time for the right reasons."

"A Hand in Most of Them"

Cheng's death elicited an outpouring from colleagues and friends, who were distraught at losing a centerpiece of their community.

Cheng served as the Aliso Niguel High School volunteer football team physician. The high school athletic program includes 25 sports, and Athletic Director Andrew Mashburn recalled that Cheng "had a hand in most of them.

"He was a kind man and caring, always putting the needs of other people in front of his own, just like he did on Sunday," the day of the shooting, Mashburn told Medscape Medical News. He was "very mellow, very humorous, and liked to have fun."

Lauren Mott, an athletic trainer at the high school, described Cheng as "not a normal physician. He would actually listen to what you were saying and always wanted to give kids the best high school athletic experience possible. We are at a huge loss, a one-in-a-million physician and impossible to replace."

Patients, too, mourned his death. Joe Cockrell, 46, a drone pilot from Laguna Beach, had been Cheng's patient for 10 years.

"At our very first visit, I loved him, his bedside manner," Cockrell said. Cheng was "such a caring, humble, and compassionate man. He would always ask, 'Are you eating, getting enough sleep?' To some doctors, you are just a number ― 'Here's a pill for this or that' ― but before he prescribed something, he would first try to find a holistic remedy," he said.

Cheng received his medical training at the Kaiser Permanente/UCLA Family Practice Program in Los Angeles. He received advanced training in sports medicine at the Kaiser Sports Medicine Fellowship Program and SPORTS Clinic in Riverside.

A Public Health Crisis

Many California-based Asian/Pacific American physicians blame Cheng's murder on social media, racism, and the absence of gun control laws. Asian/Pacific American doctors represent a sizable portion of California's physician workforce: 32% of active physicians in the state and 34% of medical school graduates identify as Asian/Pacific American, according to a 2020 report from the California Health Care Foundation.

In an interview with Medscape, Richard Pan, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and a California State senator, said the violence is "a tremendous problem for all communities of color, including the Asian community. We have a target on us and it's being documented." Pan said he has authored several social media transparency bills in the state senate because of what he called inaction at the federal level.

"We need to have ground rules in place, more transparency about what is going on in social media, and accountability for those who make decisions leading to injury and harm," Pan told Medscape.

Many physician associations have recognized gun violence as a public health crisis, according to Brent K. Sugimoto, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAF. "We need our lawmakers to eliminate the availability of military-grade and large-capacity firearms in civilian life," Sugimoto said.

"We must make meaning of his sacrifice. We must realize Dr Cheng only started the writing of his legacy. His last act was instructions on how to finish it: Save lives from guns," Sugimoto said. "As physicians, we have a moral duty to our patients to make the world safer for them, and part of our success depends on how we confront gun violence."

Sugimoto said more funding should go toward researching evidence-based policies for preventing gun violence to help shape laws and policy.

Minority groups such as Asian/Pacific Americans are vulnerable to racial violence, Sugimoto said. Although the shooter purportedly was motivated by China-Taiwan tensions, he evidently "found it permissible to commit a heinous act of violence against a minority group because he perceived them to be less protected by society," Sugimoto said.

Kim Yu, MD, FAAFP, president for the Orange County chapter of the California Academy of Family Physicians, echoed the call for stronger gun control laws, enforcement, and more resources for local violence protection and intervention programs.

"I think for the Asian American medical community, there is an added layer of grief that the tragedy was a hate crime from one Asian to another, and almost a disbelief that this could have happened right here in our community," Yu said.

Nationally, physician associations are demanding gun law reforms. California Medical Association President Robert E. Wailes, MD, said in a statement: "Our nation continues to be plagued by an epidemic of gun violence. Physicians as healers are often on the front lines of these tragic events, treating the wounds of the victims of gun violence. One of our own ― John Cheng ― took heroic measures to stop another act of senseless gun violence, and in the process, gave his life to save others."

Policies to prevent such mass killings are long overdue, he wrote. "An overwhelming majority of Americans support common sense gun reforms. We cannot stand idly by while more innocent victims are struck down by weapons that have no place on our streets. We must demand action and bring some sanity to our nation's gun laws," Wailes stated.

Ryan D. Mire, MD, FACP, president of the American College of Physicians, also urged immediate action to prevent more gun violence. "We also see the daily toll of gun violence, including mass shootings occurring nearly every day, in our communities, workplaces, stores, places of worship, and homes," Mire said in a statement. "It is time for all who share our commitment to prevent avoidable deaths and injuries from firearms, and all who share our commitment to combating racism and hate crimes, to come together to take action to help prevent future tragedies."

Sharon Donovan is a journalist in New Orleans.

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