Revolutionary laser treatment transforms burn patients

Vietnamese burn victim in iconic photo could one day be pain-free

By Melanie Lawson - The Morning Show anchor, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

MIAMI - At 9 years old, Kim Phuc was the focus of an iconic photo that's been seen by the world.  She is a living symbol of the tragedies of the Vietnam War. Phuc was burned over more than 50 percent of her body. She is getting treatment from a Miami doctor who's giving her a chance to finally walk away from years of pain.

Phuc didn't see the photo until months after planes dropped Napalm onto her South Vietnamese village.  It shows her as a nine year old crying, screaming in pain and all she could think about was how she looked.

"So ugly because I'm running without clothes," said Phuc.

She despised the picture but in time came to respect it.

"But I thank God for years that I learn about I learned that. That the picture is a powerful gift for me," Phuc said.

It shaped her life. After spending 14 months in the hospital and being burned over 50 percent of her body she survived the burns that tore into her skin penetrating down to bone. When she finally left she was a year older, scarred but thankful.

"Look at my life at nine years how much I suffer I lost my two cousins, I lost love ones, I lost everything material, my house, my childhood, is lost but we still have hope in the future," said Phuc.

That hope didn't come easy. Phuc learned to forgive and through her faith she began to heal inside and out.

"I tried my best because I'm so grateful that God let me be alive and not only be alive and endure the pain, suffering, and hatred, bitterness it's just a miracle that I could learn and grow in his love his mercy and his peace and joy so that has transformed my life to darkness to life," said Phuc.

It was the picture that gave her a platform.  It's a blessing and a curse. Phuc planned to go to medical school but was pulled out of college by the Vietnamese government to be used as propaganda.  She eventually escaped to Canada and decided to use her story to spread her own message.

"That's why I want to share my story with people and challenge them that if I can do it everyone can do it too and you don't have to wait until you are somebody and do something.  It's too late you can be a blessing and then it changed your life and it changed the life of people around you and you can change a community and the entire world," explained Phuc.

Phuc started her own foundation to help wounded warriors and other burn survivors.  She focuses mainly on helping and inspiring other people. That was until Dr. Jill Waibel's father-in-law heard Phuc speak and knew his daughter could help her.

"Right now is my dream come true heaven on earth for me," said Phuc.

She has been in constant pain since that Napalm attack more than 40 years ago. 

"I learned to distract my mind when the pain come I never focus on the pain," Phuc said.

Now with the help from a Waibel, a Miami dermatologist, the pain and scars are in the process of being burned away.

News4Jax traveled to Miami to meet Waibel, who believes in the power of lasers.

"We've got an incredible solution for them, not just an OK solution the lasers really bring it to a whole new level and can fix scars like we've never seen before," explained Waibel.

Waibel uses the lasers to actually burn the skin to heal it.

"We jokingly say we're physicians not magicians but the lasers create little wounds and they give the human body a way to heal itself. It's really quite amazing because we are using a little third-degree burn to heal a big third-degree burn," Waibel said.

It's a slow process and takes on average six or seven treatments, using the months in between to let the body heal and build new collagen.

Waibel has been working with Phuc for several months and she's already seeing results. It has been an incredible solution for a woman Waibel has come to admire."She's an incredibly beautiful human being and she's forgiven everybody and I also think she's dedicated her life spiritually to help other children of war and I think we all can learn from her," Waibel said.

In just a matter of months, after 43 years of pain, agonizing reminders of war and tragedy could fade.

"No pain, that will be wonderful in my life and I can enjoy completely," Phuc said.

Phuc is just one of Waibel's patients with a survival story.

Lance Maclean was in the cockpit when his plane slammed into the side of a mountain in Colombia. When Maclean tried to escape all he felt was fire.

"I remember that feeling of getting burned on my arms,” he recalled. “There was a lot of heat in the cockpit but specifically my arms and trying to get the hatch open."

Maclean was burned all over his body. His first surgeries were to keep him alive. In severe burn patients, Waibel says they usually are.

"A fire spreads so fast and it goes deep and it goes wide and then it just doesn't affect the skin there's an effect on the bone marrow and the organs.  Patients who are in trauma or burn injuries typically are in ICU fighting for their lives for a few days," Waibel explained.

Waibel was not Lance's first, second, or even third doctor but she was the one to eventually bring him back, visually, to his old life.

Maclean was simply focused on survival, but little did he know what his future would hold.  In less than two years, his legs, chest, and arms are nearly back to normal.

During his initial treatments in ICU, one of Maclean’s doctors told him Waibel could help.

"I was skeptical saying how is this process with lasers burning the skin again going to get rid of scars," Maclean admitted.

Despite the skepticism he contacted Waibel. News4Jax was there during his most recent treatment.

"I think when you met Lance today you probably said ‘where is the burn patient,’" Waibel said.

Maclean’s treatment is intense. Wailbel has dozens of different lasers and she has to pull out some of her most powerful for his treatment.

"Once we do this laser we're over 100 degrees Celsius we're boiling water," explained Waibel.

She's working on restoring his skin and part of Maclean's treatment is improving movement in his hands that was left immobile because of scar tissue.  Before laser treatments, Maclean couldn't even feed himself now he has full mobility.

Maclean's wife is always by his side and afterwards he says it feels like a sunburn. Waibel still has more tricks up her sleeve to help Lance.

"I love, love treating the patients and I have a lot of faith in my lasers,” Waibel said. “It's a game changer because we can get people almost back to normal every time we treat, they get better."

Maclean was a reservist at one point here in Jacksonville, and sees the benefits for our Soldiers who are burned in war. He really wants them to understand that there's a treatment for people that can help them get back to a normal life.

The treatments are not covered by insurance and prices range based on the different procedures. According to Waibel, burn and trauma can start at about $500 and can run up to about $2,000 per treatment, based on size. Surgical scars can range in price from $300 to $500 per treatment, also depending on the size and number of scars. As for treating acne scars, the price can range from about $1,200 to $1,800 per treatment. For more information, visit miamidermlaser.com/jill-waibel.

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