Girl in Iconic Vietnam War Photo Brings Message of Hope

THURSDAY, Sept. 10 (HealthDay News) -- It's a photo that many credit with helping to end the Vietnam War: A 9-year-old girl, naked and in obvious pain, runs through a street after suffering napalm burns over much of her body.

What the iconic photo -- snapped in 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut -- doesn't show is the girl's struggle to survive and thrive in the aftermath of that day.

Now 46 years old, Kim Phuc Phan Thai (Kim Phuc to most) spoke recently at a conference of burn survivors and burn care specialists in New York City on the physical and psychological struggle that she went through over the ensuing decades.

"Sixty-five percent of my body got burned," she said in an interview with HealthDay. The third-degree burns left her face untouched but sheared off every layer of skin on her back and left arm, leaving a legacy of permanent scars and recurring pain.

"I should be dead," Phuc said. "I got burned so deep I had to do skin grafts -- mostly from under my leg -- from the 35 percent of my skin that was OK. And from the beginning to the end, including physical therapy, I was in the burn unit in Saigon for about 14 months. And I had 17 operations. But I was spared," she added.

"So now I think, 'I cannot change something that happened to me already. But I can change the meaning."

Phuc has come far and is now a public speaker, peace activist, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, child welfare advocate, married mother of two, and inspiration to burn injury survivors worldwide. She lives in Toronto, her home since seeking political asylum in Canada in the early 1990s.

Phuc's message of hope resonated with many of those at the conference, held earlier this month by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, the nation's largest non-profit support and advocacy group for burn survivors. The conference was co-sponsored by the Hearst Burn Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the NY Firefighters Burn Center Foundation.

Besides listening in on Phuc's speech, burn survivors could attend workshops designed to empower with practical information, such as make-up tips to enhance the appearance of affected skin, or hear other survivors' stories of personal triumph over pain.

For example, a number of firefighters and ex-military personnel spoke of their experiences with burn injuries during the course of their work. So did CBS journalist Kimberly Dozier, who was injured while reporting in the Middle East. They also heard from burn survivor and Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez, currently an actor on the soap opera All My Children.

For her part, Phuc said the events that changed her young life are as vivid today as they were on June 8, 1972, when bombs rained down on her hometown of Trang Bang, north of Saigon.

"They saw that the temple will be next, and they told us to run," said Phuc, whose family had been hiding in the village temple grounds.

"I was in the middle of the group," remembered Phuc, "my brother, my sister, my cousin in front of me, my aunt, my uncles behind. And I stopped."

There was the sound of bombs from South Vietnamese aircraft falling, "and after I saw the fire everywhere around me," Phuc said. "I was so scared. And all my clothes just burned off by the fire. And I saw all my burns. And people screaming: 'Nong qua! Nong qua!' 'Too hot! Too hot!'"

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