Pha Le escaped from Vietnam as boy and today is one of San Diego’s Top Doctors

Life did not start well. Born at the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Pha Le’s family was torn apart by the in-country fighting that continued for years.

“My father was a lieutenant commander in the South Vietnamese Navy,” said Pha, an emergency room physician who is currently a member of the USS Midway Museum’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. “As the Republic of South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975, my father organized a retreat with his commanding officer. They fled into international waters.”

Pha’s father was rescued by the U.S. Navy, but later returned to Vietnam with 1,000 others. He was immediately taken to North Vietnam and placed in a concentration camp. Pha did not see his father again for another five years.

“The communists had one goal in imprisoning the men who served in the armed forces of South Vietnam, they wanted to destroy their bodies and by inflicting mental torture on these men, destroy their spirits,” remembers Pha. “They worked them from sunup to sundown. They became severely weak and more susceptible to disease. My father got dysentery in prison and almost died, but luckily recovered.”

Although he was finally released from prison in 1980, the communists forced his father to report to the police station weekly for random interrogations. Pha’s father wanted a normal life for his family, and quickly made the decision to escape from Vietnam. 

Pha Le with his mother and father at a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Pha’s father joined a quiet community of former South Vietnamese naval officers who were either planning to escape or had already escaped. Through this underground network, his father heard of various operations for escape by boat. He found an operation in October 1982. However, it would only allow him to bring two others. The difficult decision was made to escape, but just with Pha and his mother, leaving the two younger sons behind to live with their grandmother.

The family set out from the Mekong Delta in a small boat and headed for Indonesia where they knew there was a refugee camp. After three days, they found their way to the Indonesian island chain that contained the refugee camp. It was their first step toward freedom. Pha was 9 years old.

“We were at two different refugee camps for about a year while they processed our paperwork,” said Pha. “We were educated on the modern world and got vaccinated. Eventually, my father was interviewed by an American federation and the United States agreed to receive us as refugees for political asylum reasons.”

Although Pha was finally able come to America, it would be 10 more years before he would be reunited with his brothers as part of a family reunification program.

Initially relocated to Roanoke, Va., the family later moved to Washington state and ultimately settled in Pasadena, Calif. 

“We felt very fortunate to be in America and I was receiving a good education,” said Pha. “Although my parents learned trades, life was very difficult. It took us five years of being on public aid before we could stand on our own feet, but we are extremely grateful.”

While it was challenging to learn a new language and a new culture, Pha excelled in school. His favorite subjects were biology and math.

“I had an insatiable appetite for knowledge,” remembers Pha. “The language barrier made it difficult for me for many years. However, beginning in 10th grade, I essentially received straight A’s for the remainder of high school. I never stopped trying.”

His achievements in high school, graduating 27th out of 750 graduates, landed him at UCLA in 1991 where he studied biology. Pha later attended dental school, but he had a love for medicine and ultimately was accepted to medical school in Missouri. He and his wife, who is a physician at Rady Children’s Hospital, later moved to San Diego to practice medicine.

“My wife and I fell in love with San Diego when we came to visit in 2008,” said Pha, a father of two sons. “We love the entire lifestyle here: the beach, the weather, the landscape.”

Pha has been an emergency room doctor at Palomar Medical Center for nine years.

“I fell in love with emergency medicine, and I also liked the acute care setting,” said Pha. “I have the privilege of caring for others in their worst moments and every so often, I get to save a life.”

In 2019, Pha was chosen as one of San Diego “Top Doctors” in emergency medicine.

“This is a peer-voted award,” said Pha. “I felt extremely proud and honored to be so well regarded by my peers.”

For the last year, Pha has been a member of the Midway’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee (DAIC) which is dedicated to establishing partnerships with the diverse communities of San Diego.

“All organizations that aspire for equality should have an eye on diversity and inclusion and the Midway, as a mission to be a symbol of freedom, should be a leader in diversity and inclusion, “said Pha. “I hope that my point of view as an Asian American man in healthcare has provided a unique perspective.”

Pha was honored with the DAIC’s “Outstanding Community Service Award” in 2021.

Escaping from Vietnam and starting a new life with opportunities in the United States, Pha has very strong feelings about his association with the USS Midway Museum.

“The Midway is a true symbol of freedom, said Pha. “It rescued thousands of Vietnamese refugees during Operation Frequent Wind. It now stands as an enduring vehicle to educate the public about service and sacrifice. It serves an important purpose to educate and advocate. The general public needs to be reminded of the cost of freedom and the need to be relentless in its defense. I hope to be able to contribute to its mission for many years to come.”

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