Andrew Burd on Nigel Gray

Andrew BurdNigel Gray is an author of children’s books who lives in Perth, Australia.  I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nigel and his wife Yasmin in Hong Kong.  In the most karmic way I have to say that Nigel is the single living person who has most influenced my professional life and how this came about is quite an extraordinary tale.

In 1968 as a schoolboy in Royal Tunbridge Wells I came across of a poem called “For a young girl who stopped growing after being napalmed.”  I read this at a poetry and jazz evening we had arranged in a cellar below the Pantiles.  Those were heady and idealistic days and I was deeply moved by the raw imagery of the poem.  Of note, at that time, my aspiration was to be a writer and explorer and medicine had not figured in my life plan.  But life goes on and I did become a doctor and through a process of serendipity I am a reconstructive plastic surgeon dealing in particular with children who have suffered from burns. But what was the story behind Nigel and his poem?  I thought it must have been inspired by those indelible images of the Vietnam war ~ “the girl in the picture” – Kim Phuc. However when I read Kim’s biography written by Denise Chong I realised there was something wrong with the dates.  The picture of Kim Phuc running down the road after Trong Bang had been devastated by a Napalm attack, were taken on 8 June 1972.  I had read Nigel Gray’s poem in 1968.  Several years ago I decided to track down Nigel and find out about the story of the poem; a poem which unconsciously had had such a defining impact on my life.

In 1967, Nigel and 26 fellow pacifists formed a group, “Non violent action in Vietnam.”  They planned to go to Hanoi to show care and compassion for the innocent civilian victims of the Vietnam war.  However, as 1967 – 1968 was the time of the Tet Offensive they could not get into North Vietnam.  Instead they went to Cambodia and were given permission, as Western observers, to travel to the border villages along the Cambodia – Vietnamese border.  Cambodian neutrality was being violated by the United States Air Force, which was bombing villages along the Ho Chi Minh trail.  It was during this survey that Nigel came across an 18 year old girl.  This was the girl in the poem.  Nigel was told that several years before planes had come over and fired rockets at her village.  When the people ran out of their house, the planes came back and dropped napalm on them.  This girl was the only survivor.  She was burnt from her head to below her buttocks.  Her arms were fused to her sides, she had stopped growing and, well it is all there in the poem.

Nigel and his friends realised that the tragedy of the war was far greater than they had ever conceived and went to Thailand via Singapore.  They went to a U.S.A.F. bomber base in Northern Thailand to protest but were arrested and imprisoned in Bangkok.

“For a young girl who stopped growing after being napalmed” was the first poem that Nigel had ever written.  It was rough and raw but for a reactionary who had grown up in Northern Ireland and had left school semi-illiterate it was a defining point in his life.  The poem was smuggled out and published and added to the growing awareness of the horror of the American involvement in the war in Vietnam.  Nigel was deported from prison to the U.K. and continued with his anti-war activities.

Now, a lot older, and wiser, Nigel continues to share his love for humanity and joy for life through his writing and particularly his stories for children.

It was a very special occasion for me to meet the person who has defined my career in medicine.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.