Girl severely burned in 1972 Vietnam napalm attack aided by new laser therapy
It’s an image from the Vietnam War that many people still can’t get out of their heads — immortalized in black and white and in color to personify for all time the limitless brutality of war.
For 9-year-old Kim Phuc (watch the video), June 8, 1972 became the first day of the rest of her life — a traumatic era unknowingly set off by a South Vietnamese pilot who nearly killed her with an errant napalm strike in her hometown of Trang Bang and literally sent her screaming into the countryside.
Forced to tear off her burning clothes, a naked Kim was captured fleeing her village moments later by a still photographer and news cameraman — images that shocked the world and revealed the grave threats faced daily by Vietnam villagers caught in the middle of two warring forces, each trying to wipe the other from the face of the Earth.
What Kim did not know at the time, though, was that the images of her severe burns would also sear themselves onto the world’s collective conscience — through a black and white Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph and color video footage that for decades afterward stood as garish reminders of how horrifying war can be.
After nearly 45 years into her new life, though, Kim, now 52, may finally be on the cusp of putting the pain of the injuries she sustained that day behind her — thanks to a relatively new medical procedure intended to ease pain felt by burn victims like no treatment ever has before.
The potential medical breakthrough is being performed at the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute. By using refined laser therapy, the process breaks up thick scar tissue and lets the skin re-heal itself — almost to a perfect, painless condition.
“What we know about scars is they’re all wrong. It’s just chaotic healing,” Dr. Jill S. Waibel, a cutaneous laser surgery specialist at the clinic, told CBS News. “So we are going to take out pieces, tiny pieces of skin with this fractional laser and then allow the body to heal it almost to normal.”
Since gaining fame for being the infamous “napalm girl,” Kim has led a difficult life. The burns she received left scarring that runs up her left arm and down her entire back. And if that isn’t enough, the pain they’ve left are not only skin deep.
“At nine years old, I remember I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I got burned and I became ugly. And people will see me different way,'” Kim told CBS News.
After spending her teenage years in Vietnam, Kim attended college in Havana, Cuba, but lingering health issues stifled her dream of studying medicine. A few years later, she married and effectively defected to Canada — where the couple still live today.
Despite her still fighting physical pain 43 years on, Kim has embraced the challenging life she was given in June of 1972. She is now a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO — the United Nations agency that promotes peace through education, science, and culture. She has also founded the Kim Phuc Foundation International — a non-profit organization that works to provide medical and psychological assistance to children worldwide who have been changed by war.
But she hopes the revolutionary treatment in South Florida will finally free her of the one remaining chain that still binds her painfully to the past.
It was only by happenstance that Kim found out about the new treatment process — from a man at her church whose daughter-in-law, Dr. Waibel, was developing the procedure in Miami.
“He said, ‘Kim, I have a daughter-in-law, she really helps people who got burned. Maybe you [should] try to relieve your pain,'” Kim recalled. “And so I said, ‘Yes, I will!'”
Dr. Waibel said she expects Kim will need between seven to 10 laser therapy treatments — sessions that cost between $1,500 and $2,000, which she is providing to Kim free of charge.
“I am hoping to decrease Kim’s pain and improve the texture of her scars,” she told ABC News in a statement.