Volunteer Spotlight: Sophie Phuong Le, Healthcare Humanist

By Sally Johnson

Sophie Phuong Le joined HumanistsMN about five years ago and has contributed to event hosting and thoughtful discussion ever since. A pediatric pharmacist, she was drawn to our group, as many of us are, seeking intellectual discussion and community.

“As much of a skeptic in human intention as I am (ahem, Thomas Hobbes), I am still alive today because the kindness of strangers exists,” she says. “I joined HumanistsMN a few months after arriving in Minnesota for grad school because the HMN community shares many values that are important to me.”

Since joining, Sophie has hosted a few TED Talk salons, an online humanist book club, and a popular dumpling-tasting event that highlighted common traditions across many cultures. “Who doesn’t love dumplings?” she says. “They’re like this universal language of comfort food. Hosting this event was more than just about eating good food. It was a chance to explore different cultures… We all enjoy gathering around a table to share a meal. It’s these simple, everyday things that connect us as humans.”

Sophie also now serves on HMN’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. 

From Vietnam to the United States

While growing up in Vietnam, her family attended events at both Catholic churches and Buddhist temples, but they were also influenced by Confucianism, “meaning that females were limited to the roles of daughters, wives, and/or moms,” she says. “On the other hand, the promise of meritocracy, any form of political expression, and financial independence were effectively taken away from girls and women like me.”

Sophie moved to the United States in high school, and her adjustment was layered.  

In Vietnam, she had faced criticism from both parents and classmates — “for taking a classmate’s first-place spot in school, for being too overweight or too underweight, for being an introvert, and so on.”

In the U.S., “while I quickly transitioned to speaking English and did well at school, it took me years to find my place in a part of each new community in Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota, learn to live a little more authentically, and also learn to take myself a little less seriously at the right time.”

Scholarships and grants covered some of her tuition in college and grad school, but she juggled several campus jobs to cover most of her costs. “The most challenging job that I had wasn’t the physically intense one,” she says. “It was the socially embarrassing one: working at the dining hall where I served food to my classmates. I acted normal when someone was being unbelievably rude, then cleaned their tables afterward.”

Humanism in Medicine

Sophie’s exposure to humanism began with reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns after graduating from high school. “I was gripped by the stories and historical records describing involuntary and voluntary migration flows within the U.S. by African Americans,” she says. “And I could also draw similarities with the reasons behind these geographic movements among Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese immigrants.” 

During that time, she also went on a healthcare volunteer trip to three Vietnam provinces and helped set up nonprofit pharmacies. She describes “operating at full speed” and taking the pharmacies down the same day, several times over a month. “Those blistering, tiring, but rewarding summer days were the first time that I considered taking humanism a bit more seriously,” she says.

Sophie is a connector and a problem solver. In her professional life, she sees our healthcare system through the medical challenges of children and their parents.  

“As a pediatric pharmacist, my work is all about helping kids. I make sure they get the right medicines at the right dose, right when they need them. I also help families afford these medicines by working with insurance and charities,” she says. “Part of my job is also to help set up clinical trials. These trials are important – they’ve helped increase the survival rate for kids with cancer to 90 percent, a huge change from just a few decades ago.”

Sophie’s commitment to the progress of medicine fits into her appreciation of humanist values. When asked about how humanist thinkers have influenced her, she had notable examples from the medical field.

“William Osler, a founding professor of Johns Hopkins Medical School, emphasized the human side of medicine. His approach to medical education, focusing on bedside manner and direct interaction with patients, revolutionized how clinicians are trained,” she says. 

“His teachings have influenced me to prioritize empathy and compassion when I have a chance to speak to them or their parents about their health and medications. By seeing each child as a unique individual, beyond just their medical needs, I aim to provide care that respects their dignity and emotional well-being.”

She also cites a more current title that is applicable to all our lives, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. “A profound exploration of life, death, and the human condition,” she says, “his work has encouraged me to contemplate the broader implications of illness and mortality, and to approach my role not just as a dispenser of medication, but as a supportive guide through the often-challenging journey of health and illness that my young patients and their families navigate.”

We so appreciate Sophie’s contribution to HMN and her unique perspective on what helps humans flourish!

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4 comments

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  1. Thank you Sally and Sophie. I especially appreciate reading what it was like growing up in Viet Nam. I had no idea that Confucianism has this view of women. It sounds like there was a lot of criticism as a youth which can be extremely difficult for young ones to deal with. Seeing how Sophie has become a great influence in her communities is very inspiring thanks again!

      • Sophie Le on February 15, 2024 at 5:48 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you, John! You are so kind. Unlike Confucianism, Taoism tends to be more supportive of women, and I wish it were more mainstream in Vietnam. Still, I did have many great women that I looked up to while I was growling up: the Trung sisters, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and many more!

    • Christine R on February 6, 2024 at 7:58 pm
    • Reply

    Sophie – I am very grateful for this article, to get to know you and your background more. You have had some significant struggles! And I love your philosophy of healthcare – or shall we call it human-care? The families you serve are fortunate to have you with them 🙂

      • Sophie Le on February 15, 2024 at 5:40 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you for being so kind, Christine. Glad to be a fellow humanist with you!

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