As Kim Phuc fled the aftermath of a napalm attack — her face agape in terror and pain — the nine-year-old unwittingly became a living symbol of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Some 40 years later, the 52-year-old is receiving medical treatment for the wounds she suffered after the South Vietnamese military accidentally dropped napalm on civilians in Trang Bang village near Saigon.
Phuc travelled from her home in Canada, where she moved with her husband in the early 1990s, to Miami to visit a dermatologist who specialises in laser treatments for burn patients. Dr Jill Waibel of the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute hopes the treatment will relieve the aches and pains caused by the explosion, and soften the scarred skin which spreads from Phuc&’s left hand to her arm, up her neck to her hairline and down almost all of her back.
“So many years I thought that I have no more scars, no more pain when I’m in heaven. But now — heaven on earth for me!” Phuc told Associated Press reporters. Accompanying her was her husband, Bui Huy Toan, and Nick Ut — the Associated Press photojournalist who captured the moment on 8 June 1972 that changed Ms Phuc&’s life and won him the Pulitzer Prize.
Ut said he remembered the young girl screaming that she was “too hot” as he gave her shelter in the AP van. “I think I’m dying, too hot, too hot, I’m dying,” she cried as her skin peeled off her body. She was left with scars almost four times as thick as normal skin. She went on to tell CNN in June, “I always remember that horrible day that we ran from life to death.” At the time, she was embarrassed by the photo and found it difficult to cope with the publicity, she said.
But her opinion gradually changed, “I realised that if I couldn’t escape that picture, I wanted to go back to work with that picture for peace. And that is my choice.” Now she refers to Ut as “Uncle Ut” and says, “He&’s the beginning and the end. He took my picture and now he’ll be here with me with this new journey, new chapter.”
At the time, Phuc was lucky to be alive after suffering serious burn across over a third of her body, said Waibel. “As a child, I loved to climb on the tree, like a monkey,” picking the best guavas, tossing them down to her friends, Phuc says. “After I got burned, I never climbed on the tree anymore and I never played the game like before with my friends. It&’s really difficult. I was really, really disabled.”
Dr Waibel predicts that Phuc will need around seven treatments over up to nine months. Speaking at home in Canada, Phuc said the aftermath of treatment was uncomfortable, but she would go on undeterred. “Maybe it takes a year,” she says. “But I am really excited — and thankful.”