Plastic surgeon who treated Vietnam's 'Napalm girl' dies

Dr. Randall McNally was a plastic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center who developed innovative surgical techniques and for many years was the on-call “cut doctor” for the Chicago Blackhawks, treating everything from broken jaws to shattered cheekbones during games.

McNally also had an interesting role in the Vietnam War. In 1972, he was in South Vietnam helping to recover the remains of extended family members killed in an airplane bombing. While in Saigon, McNally volunteered to perform reconstructive surgery at a hospital, treating numerous South Vietnamese children who had been injured or disfigured by the war.

Among his patients was 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, known worldwide as the “Napalm girl” for being the primary subject in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of people in a village that was bombed with Napalm. The photo of a naked and screaming Phuc, standing on a village road in pain from widespread burns to her skin, is credited with turning more Americans against the war.

“Deep down in my heart, I owe him. I’m so thankful that someone was there to help me when I really needed them,” said Kim Phuc, 59, who reunited with McNally in 1996 and now lives in Toronto. “He was so happy that I survived and not just survived as a victim of war but I moved on and learned to forgive and now am working for peace. He was so proud of his patient — he was so proud of that little girl.”

McNally, 92, died of natural causes July 25 at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, said his son, Edward, who is a former general counsel for homeland security at the White House. Randall McNally was a longtime resident of Northbrook.

Born in Chicago, McNally grew up in the South Side Gresham neighborhood. His father, Edward McNally, owned and operated a company that installed garage doors in the Chicago area. McNally held jobs from a young age, delivering the Saturday Evening Post and working as a soda jerk at a drugstore on South Ashland Avenue.

After graduating from Mount Carmel High School he received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Notre Dame, where he was senior class treasurer.

McNally won numerous baton twirling competitions as a child and at Notre Dame was a drum major for the Fighting Irish marching band.

McNally earned a medical degree in 1955 from St. Louis University Medical School, then did his residency at what now is Rush University Medical Center, followed by two years at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where he treated airmen returning from Vietnam.

Back at Rush, he went into practice as a plastic surgeon with Jack Curtin, who had been the head of plastic surgery at Rush, and later broke off on his own.

“There was a big paradigm shift going on in the 1960s and ‘70s between the old ways and the new ways, and Randy was on the cusp of doing things the new way,” said plastic surgeon Craig Bradley, who worked alongside him. “What he gave so many of us young guys was the freedom to create new ways. He positively affected so many students who rotated through plastic surgery. So many people out of his training became good because he took them into themselves.”

“His desire to help people is why he became a surgeon,” said McNally’s son, Thomas, who is director of spine surgery at Weiss Hospital in Chicago. “His motivation for his high level of achievement was borne out of his childhood — he excelled at the things that he attempted to do, and he loved working with his hands. The things that he could do with a baton as a child, he then translated into surgical technique.”

On June 15, 1972, McNally’s brother-in-law, Thomas Kenny, was killed in Vietnam along with his wife, Roberta, and four of his children when their flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong exploded over Vietnam. McNally flew to Vietnam to help in the recovery, identification and return of the Kenny family’s remains.

McNally’s work in trying to heal Kim Phuc, who initially wasn’t expected to survive, was something that he kept to himself.

“Most of the people around him never knew that he operated on Kim. He never made a big deal about it, even as famous as that photograph made her,” Bradley said.

A documentary crew brought McNally and Kim Phuc together in 1996. Ever the practitioner, McNally again examined Phuc’s scars at that time.

“My scars are always with me, but I’m so thankful for who really was there at the right time for helping me,” Kim Phuc said. “He was not only the doctor but I can see that he was my angel on earth. No words are enough to thank him.”

While working for the Blackhawks, McNally became close to such notable players as Keith Magnuson, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. In a 2010 Tribune article by columnist John Kass, McNally recalled the team’s trainer, Skip Thayer, working on Magnuson after his jaw was broken in two places.

“HIs (jaw) bone was exposed through the skin, and he had a bad laceration,” McNally said. “I looked to Magnuson and said, ‘You’re done, Keith.’ ”

But Magnuson wanted to return to the game so badly that he rose and began trading punches with Thayer, McNally recalled.

“They were really going at it,” McNally said. “To his credit, Skip did not punch him in the face, just the body.”

For much of the 1990s, McNally was chairman of Rush University Medical Center’s department of plastic and reconstructive surgery. From 1998 until 2004, he also was the associate dean of surgical services and sciences at Rush, overseeing 11 chairpersons of each specialty of surgery.

“Watching him take care of disfigured people — burn victims, cancer patients — as well as people from all walks of life, I learned from him how to treat everybody equally, with dignity and respect,” said McNally’s daughter, Tara McNally Montgomery, who is an executive producer for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

After retiring from Rush in 2004, McNally enjoyed boating on Geneva Lake in Wisconsin in a Boston Whaler boat named Scarlett.

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McNally suffered several tragedies during his life. In 1976, his daughter, Anne, died by suicide. Then, in 1994, his son Rand, a Navy reservist pilot, was killed at age 33 while practicing landings in an A-6 Navy attack bomber from Alameda Naval Air Station in California.

“Our family was knocked down, and watching him endure, I learned the lessons of resilience, and to keep going no matter what, and to be steadfast,” McNally Montgomery said. “That is the lasting lesson for me.”

McNally’s wife of 61 years, Margaret, died in 2015.

In addition to his two sons and his daughter, McNally is survived by three other daughters, Maureen McNally Morrissey, Sheila and McNally Sagal; two other sons, Patrick and Ryan; 30 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

A visitation will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at St. Norbert’s Catholic Church in Northbrook. A funeral is set for 10 a.m. Fridayat the church.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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