The famous “Napalm Girl” is finally shedding some of her scars.
On Saturday, the now 53-year-old subject of the iconic Vietnam War photograph received her last in a series of cutting-edge laser skin treatments designed to heal the scars that stretch from her hairline, down her back and up her left arm. In the 1972 Pulitzer Prize winning photo by AP photographer Nick Ut, the 9-year-old runs down the street naked, screaming, as napalm dropped by a South Vietnamese plane scorches her body.
Kim Phuc Phan Thi said she’d resigned herself to live with the scars and pain her whole life, until she saw a program about Dr. Jill Waibel’s laser treatments on TV. She reached out to Waibel, who runs Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute in Southwest Miami-Dade. She offered to treat Phan Thi for free.
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Success was not guaranteed. The practice of using laser to treat scars is still new, and the damage was intense. The highly flammable Napalm seared and melted Phan Thi’s flesh and muscles to the bone.
“It was so severe,” Waibel said. “We don’t call it that anymore, but [it was a] fourth-degree burn.”
Four decades later, the open wounds have long healed, but pain, itching and mobility issues remained. Starting in September, Phan Thi flew to South Florida from her home in Canada for nine treatments over the months.
Waibel used combinations of the more than 50 lasers in her practice on Phan Thi’s skin. The searingly hot lasers boil the scarred skin away, leaving room for new skin and collagen to regenerate. It will take a few more weeks for her skin to fully heal from her final treatment on Saturday, but there’s already been improvement from the previous treatments.
“I can see that it’s softer in some places,” Phan Thi said. “It just looks so beautiful.”
Her husband, Toan Bui Huy, 56, said his wife used to be in constant pain, especially when the weather changed. After the first few treatments, he was delighted to hear the pain had lessened.
But the best benefit of the treatment was unexpected.
“Before, sometimes things would touch me and I wouldn’t know what it was,” Phan Thi said. “Now, I can feel it.”
The regeneration process included the sensitive nerves near the surface of her skin, Waibel explained.
“Now she can feel her little grandson’s hand on her arm,” she said.