An HIV-positive Vietnamese woman who was named an "Asian Hero" by Time Magazine has been active in helping fellow patients combat their illness and social stigmas in the past 14 years.
Along with 19 other Asian laureates, Pham Thi Hue, now 36, was selected by Time as the 2004 Asian Hero.
She was honored as one of Vietnam’s few who have braved social discrimination to come out of the closet and help many others with HIV/AIDS.
Hue, a native to the northern city of Hai Phong, said that she has gained 11 kilograms compared to her weight of 42 kilograms in 2001, when she first learned of her infection.
Many would not believe that a woman in such good shape and with beaming smiles has lived with the HIV virus over the past 14 years.
Hue not only lives but she has also made the most of her life.
She has appeared with a high frequency in the media and at a large number of workshops to address HIV-related issues in great depth.
Hue launched “Hoa Phuong Do” (Red Flamboyant), Hai Phong City’s first-ever self-help HIV/AIDS group, in 2003.
Pham Thi Hue is pictured during a trip abroad to address HIV/AIDS issues in 2004.
Moment of reckoning
Hue first learned of her HIV infection in 2001, as she was in hospital, ready to give birth to her son.
Her husband, a former drug addict and an HIV-positive patient himself, was confirmed to pass the virus to her.
Hue’s elation at her new motherhood was short-lived, as she and her newborn son soon faced their first discrimination from the midwives and nurses.
Her family and in-laws were relentlessly victimized by mindless neighbors and others.
A tailor herself, Hue received very few clients, while her parents-in-law had to close down their café due to mounting mental persecution and alienation.
There were times when the woman cringed in fear, solitude and self-pity, and contemplated suicide.
She sought solace in the fact that her son is fortunate enough to be HIV-free.
Defying social stigmas
Back from a seminar in 2002, where she had a highly motivational heart-to-heart dialog with Dr. Khuat Thu Hong, who was deputy head of the Institute for Social Development Studies then, Hue became resolved that she would not allow herself to succumb to social stigmas.
The young woman soon began her commitment to the cause with a clutch of activities, such as addressing local and international workshops, providing consulting for people with HIV, tending to AIDS patients in their final phases, and burying the deceased.
The ‘Asian Hero’ is currently head of the PR office of the Community Health Assistance, and HIV/AIDS Combat and Prevention Center in Hai Phong.
Her center is now working on a project which assists grandparents in properly taking care of their HIV-affected children.
Sponsored by the Korea International Cooperation Agency, the project has been implemented in Le Chan District since 2003 and is underway in Hong Bang District, Hue said.
Hue remains active in offering direct and phone counseling, referring patients to hospitals for timely intervention, and spurring them on to battle their illness and social stigmas.
She gives several counseling sessions each day and makes her phone number public.
People sometimes call her as early as 6:00 am and as late as 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm.
“I try my utmost to help HIV-positive people by drawing on my personal experiences and knowledge of the sinister illness. I’m glad that people still count on me,” Hue said.
Pham Thi Hue was selected as one of 60 people in Ho Chi Minh City to partake in the 2008 Olympics torch procession. Photo: Tuoi Tre
She added the management of the Hoa Phuong Do self-help group have split up and are now in charge of smaller groups held in different locales throughout the city.
“In recent years, social stigmas against people with HIV in Hai Phong have been on the wane, which is an encouraging sign. Local HIV-positive people have also been more active than ever and launched 23 self-help groups,” Hue stressed.
Her only son, now an eighth-grader, takes great pride in his HIV-positive mother.
The boy has grown used to social unacceptability since a tender age. “Now that social stigmas have become a less daunting challenge, I remain concerned about jobs for HIV-positive people,” Hue said.
“All I hope for is a healthy, long life so that I can help more of those in need.”
Hue’s life story inspired Vietnamese-American playwright Don Nguyen to compose a play titled “Hoa Phuong Do,” according to the National Committee for AIDS, Drugs and Prostitution Prevention and Control.
The play, sponsored by Amazin Lethi, a Vietnamese-American charity doer and activist for HIV-positive people in the U.S., was staged in New York late last month.
Pham Thi Hue and her son, who was four then, are seen on the covers of booklets addressing HIV/AIDS issues and social stigmas against HIV-positive people. Photo: Tuoi Tre