The better part of four decades have come and gone since the day Fred Cheung opened his dental practice in Dubuque.
Now that the time has come for Cheung, 71, to step away from the business, he admits it is a bittersweet moment.
“It is one of the saddest and most gratifying moments of my life,” he said. “I built something from nothing, and to see that end — to walk out the door and never come back — that is hard to take.”
Cheung retired Jan. 1 and handed Dubuque Pediatric Dentistry over to Steve Leifker.
Leifker attended four years of dental school and completed his residency at University of Iowa. During residency, Leifker crossed paths with Cheung’s daughter, Natalie Ghosheh, who eventually introduced him to Cheung.
Cheung said he quickly took a liking to Leifker. In early 2016, Cheung started talking with Leifker about taking over the practice.
To Leifker, the decision wasn’t a difficult one.
“I knew I wanted to continue working in Dubuque and I knew that working here felt like home,” he said. “It really felt right.”
Cheung came to the U.S. from Hong Kong 50 years ago. After spending a few years in California, he eventually made his way to Dubuque.
He opened his practice in 1979, a time when Cheung encountered little diversity in Dubuque.
“When I came to town there was probably less than 10 Asian people in town,” he said.
Cheung admitted it was not an easy path when he first arrived, but he eventually gained the support of the community.
“There are bad people and we have encountered some of them,” Cheung said. “But in general, the people here are very good. They believe in what your capabilities are instead of the color of your skin.”
Leifker began work at Dubuque Pediatric Dentistry on July 2, 2014, just two days after completing his residency.
Now that he is the sole dentist at the practice, he fully appreciates the importance of the two-plus years he has spent getting to know the patients.
“I think that part of it was invaluable,” he said. “Being able to see the patients ahead of time. Now that I am in the driver’s seat, everybody knows me and has had a chance to work with me. I’m not a completely new guy. I am a familiar face. I’ve met the kids and met the parents.”
Leifker said he was not always certain he wanted to specialize in pediatric dentistry. However, midway through his residency, it became clear that working with kids was his passion.
He takes pride in calming the nerves of the youngsters who come to see him.
“You can take a child who is 4, or 5 or 6 years old and give them a really positive experience by singing goofy songs and helping them get through their appointment,” he said. “Giving them that positive experience makes the dentist less of a fear. It makes the dentist less scary.”
Reflecting on his lengthy career, Cheung takes immense pride in taking care of all kids, regardless of their financial means, he said.
“I always believed they should not be left out,” he said.
Cheung said a major reason why he gravitated toward Leifker is his confidence that the practice’s new owner would continue that philosophy.
Leifker said he was raised by a single mom and their family often relied on public aid. He said he would have slipped through the cracks if not for finding a dentist who was willing to see him.
“I can’t sleep at night knowing that there might be a kid out there that is having trouble finding a dentist because of their ability or inability to pay,” he said. “I am passionate about serving underserved communities. That is something that will always be at the core of what we do here.”
Leifker said this philosophy applies to Medicaid patients, those with special health care needs or anyone else with limited access to care.
This all-inclusive mindset is a big reason why Cheung feels like he is leaving his practice in the right hands, and why he feels his legacy will live on.
“This train is continuing on,” he said.