Class of 2020 Feature: Leo Yenwongfai Pursues Childhood Dream

Leonard (Leo) Yenwongfai was just 5 years old when he officially solidified his plans to become a doctor. It was after a conversation he had with a physician who was taking care of a family member at the time. That man, also named Leonard, told him, “I want you to be a doctor just like me.”

The recommendation opened up a whole world for Leo, as no one in his immediate family ever pursued a health care profession. The advice stuck, and his dream officially comes together when he graduates and earns his medical degree.

Leo reflects on his medical school experience as a story of resilience, with several blessings along the way. The journey started in Cameroon in 2003. Unlike in the United States, students attend medical school right after high school, not after an undergraduate degree. It was an extremely competitive process, and on his first attempt, Leo didn’t get in.

But he didn’t give up. Instead, he built up the resume he knew would stand out for medical school applications, earning his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in Cameroon, then moving to the U.S. in 2009 to earn his master’s degree in biology from East Tennessee State University. Later, he joined the UK College of Medicine’s PhD program in toxicology and cancer biology.

Again, plans changed. His wife, Anita Yenwongfai, who was completing pharmacy school in Virginia, became pregnant with their first child, so he took a leave of absence from his PhD program to support his future family, all while taking pre-requisite classes for medical school. Leo eventually returned to UK, this time to become a clinician rather than a researcher.

Then, in his first year of medical school, his father unexpectedly passed away. Leo said his mother encouraged him to stay in school rather than travel back to Cameroon for the funeral because his father wouldn’t have wanted him to disrupt his momentum.

The loss, though devastating, gave Leo a new perspective on life, leading him to make a firm decision: no matter how grueling medical school or his career became, his No. 1 priority would be making time for his wife and two incredible daughters, now ages 6 and 3.

“When you’re in medical school, you think the rest of your life outside of it will pause,” Leo said. “After that experience it made me understand that, yes, work as hard as you can, but you also have this whole world out there you have to focus on, the people you love.”

This new outlook influenced him to choose pathology as his specialty, which coincides with his past research experience and allows him to more easily balance his work and personal life.

Leo’s goal is to practice in Kentucky to help alleviate its physician shortage. In fact, on Match Day, he learned he will continue his journey at the UK College of Medicine through a pathology residency. In the future, he eventually hopes to return to Cameroon to help his hometown with the skills he has acquired.

The road to reaching his longstanding dream has been a winding one; however, he has reached a destination that was well worth the wait.

“I am just so grateful for the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do,” Leo said. “I look forward to using what I’ve learned to help those who need good health care the most.”