by Trung Thanh
|Battling beauty: Tuyet is the second runner-up of "Beauty Plus", a contest to detect, recognise and celebrate the beauty, talent, energy and contributions of women living with HIV in Viet Nam. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Leading a healthy, active life as a secondary school teacher, Nguyen Thi Tuyet never knew how she was infected with HIV/AIDS.
After graduating from the National College for Education I, Tuyet started to work at Hoa Sen kindergarten in the northern province of Bac Giang. Young and pretty, she was well-known as the secretary for the school's youth union, and her students adored her. Tuyet also had a fulfilling private life. Married, she had one son, and another on the way. However, the day she found out she was expecting, she also found out bad news: her blood test showed that she was HIV-positive.
"It was unbelievable," Tuyet recalled. "I am a faithful wife, and I lead a veryhealthy life."
Tuyet didn't believe the result was accurate, so she visited different hospitals to repeat the test.
But after every blood test gave her the same result, Tuyet remembered helping a student who was bleeding after an accident, and realized the tests might be correct.
After that, she said, it began the gloomiest chapter of her life.
"My mind was taken over by a series of questions: ‘How long will I live?', ‘Do other people know that I am HIV-positive?', ‘How will my husband and child live without me?' But what I worried about most was the discrimination and neglect I would get from my family, relatives and neighbors," Tuyet recalled.
Two months after she got the news, Tuyet was taking many sleeping pills every night, but she still couldn't sleep. She lost weight rapidly, and the baby became the only reason she wanted to live.
But after the doctors said her newborn son and her husband were HIV-negative, she felt a glimmer of happiness.
After giving birth, Tuyet rarely went out.
"I always thought people were talking about me," she said.
When friends asked why she didn't go to school anymore, Tuyet just looked away. The truth was that the school where she worked had asked her to give up her job. They said her students would move to other classes or schools because their parents wouldn't want them to study with an HIV-positive teacher.
With a hopeless disease and no salary, the mother of two didn't know how she would manage to survive. After many sleepless nights, Tuyet decided she should stand up and face her destiny.
"I am HIV-positive," she told the headmaster, "but I still want to work."
Finally she was allowed to return - but not as a teacher. Instead of working closely with students, Tuyet stayed late after the kindergarten closed to clean the hallways and classrooms. Still, she got cold glances from people around her, and her small monthly salary was not particularly encouraging. So Tuyet resigned from her job a second time.
New social life
The desperate teacher found a new ray of hope when she ran into a parent of her former student, who introduced her to a club of HIV-positive women. It was the first time, she said, she no longer felt that she was "waiting to die".
"Since I joined the club, I have learnt a lot about the virus. I know how to minimize the risk of infecting my son and my husband," she said. "Also, I can share my knowledge and feelings with people in the same situation. I realised we have the right to live and continue contributing to society."
After a few years regaining her self-confidence, Tuyet decided to enter a beauty contest entitled "Beauty Plus", where the contestants weren't seeking fame or fortune. Instead, they hoped to change community perceptions of HIV-positive individuals.
"Many people didn't know I had HIV. Participating in the contest meant publicizing my situation," Tuyet said.
|Shining example: Tuyet is teacher of a unique class, where all children are orphans and HIV positive. VNS File Photo
At first, many people objected to her decision, including her parents. They worried their daughter would be discriminated against.
But when Tuyet was nominated the second-runner up in the competition, the recognition made her feel compelled to do something useful for her community.
Today, at Bac Giang's social welfare support centre, Tuyet teaches a special class. There are only seven students - all HIV-positive.
All of them are orphans who were sent to the centre from different provinces. Without their parents, they no longer have anyone to care for them. The oldest is Nguyen Mai Linh, born in 2001. The smallest is just over two years old.
Linh has lived at the centre for three years. She is not as strong as the others, coughs a lot and finds it difficult to move around.
Early in the morning, Tuyet comes to help Linh, as well as other students, overcome their difficulties and renew their belief in life. She has become a source of inspiration for them, bringing about significant changes in the children's lives.
"Previously, we lived without hope," one of her students said.
But after meeting the teacher, the students who once refused to take their medicine have adopted a more positive outlook on life.
"Tuyet gives us smiles," the student said.
The teacher has also become more optimistic.
"I have finished the first grade with them, and now I am preparing to become their second grade teacher. The work keeps me very busy. But standing in front of my innocent students every day, giving them hope and joy and teaching them valuable lessons, I feel completely satisfied," Tuyet said.
Tuyet has also made new friends. Former contestants from the "Beauty Plus" contest still contact each other; Tuyet shared her good news with Tran Thi Hue, the winner of the contest, who now has a happy family with a young man in the same situation. They have a son who does not have HIV.
Tuyet's husband said her health has remarkably improved since her mind was freed, even though she hasn't been using medicine to prevent the development of the virus.
"The medicine has side effects which damage my body, so I try to keep from using it. Who knows - I might have another chance to be in a ‘beauty plus' contest!" Tuyet joked. — VNS