The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forty-three years after the burns that made her the ‘Napalm Girl’, Kim Phuc gets treatment for scars

Kim Phuc shows the scars on her back and left arm, at a hotel in Miami on Sept. 25, 2015. (Nick Ut/AP)

On June 8, 1972, Kim Phuc was 9 years old and running for her life: her mouth open in anguish, her thin arms splayed out on either side of her small naked body, her burning clothes left behind as the skin on her back stung with the torture of having touched fire.

With one black and white photograph, Phuc became a symbol for the pain of the Vietnam War.

Nick Ut, a photographer for the Associated Press, snapped the portrait of terror just before taking her and several other fleeing children to a hospital in Saigon. The next day, the photo was printed on the front page of the New York Times and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; Ut has said that it was a moment that changed both of their lives.

Phuc and Ut, now 52 and 65, were together again late last month, the AP reported Sunday.

Phuc had traveled with her husband, Bui Huy Thoan, from their home in Ajax, Canada, to Miami. There, she began a series of laser treatments at the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute meant to smooth and soften the thick scar tissue that extends from her left hand to her hairline, and almost all the way down her back.

Also by her side was the man she affectionately calls “Uncle Ut,” who still works for the Associated Press but is now based in Los Angeles.

“He’s the beginning and the end,” Phuc told the AP. “He took my picture and now he’ll be here with me with this new journey, new chapter.”

Jill Waibel, Phuc’s doctor, said the treatments will relieve the deep pains and aches that continue to plague her.

Upon arrival in Miami, Phuc told the AP, “So many years I thought I have no more scars, no more pain when I’m in heaven. But now — heaven on earth for me!”

Despite spending years doing exercises to preserve her mobility, simple tasks — like extending her left arm or carrying her purse on her left side — remain difficult. While Phuc loved to climb trees “like a monkey” and toss guava fruits down to her friends as a child, she was never so agile again after getting burned.

Waibel, who is offering the treatments free of charge, expects Phuc will need up to seven sessions over the next eight or nine months, the AP reports. The lasers being used were originally created to smooth out eye wrinkles, heating the skin to the boiling point to vaporize scar tissue.

Back home in Canada, Phuc told the AP that the scars had reddened and turned itchy from the treatment, but she remained optimistic about healing.

“Maybe it takes a year,” she said. “But I am really excited — and thankful.”

Speaking with CNN this summer, Phuc spoke about how helping child victims of war has become her life’s mission. Her nonprofit, the Kim Foundation International, supports child protection and rehabilitation projects in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

An audiotape released in 2002 revealed that President Richard Nixon had speculated about whether Ut’s photograph was “fixed.”

In response, the photographer said, “The picture for me and unquestionably for many others could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the Vietnam War itself.”

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