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By Apiradee Treerutkuarkul
Bangkok Post

MAE RIM DISTRICT, CHIANG MAI When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade, so goes a well-known saying. But 40-year-old Pimjai Intamoon has gone far beyond that.

"When I was told I was HIV-positive 18 years ago, I allowed it to be an inspiration rather than a curse," said Mrs. Pimjai, standing in her barn-like compound. "It's beyond happiness that my vulnerability has proved a source of strength and a blessing for other people living with HIV/AIDS and those who are not infected at my local community."

One of the many projects spearheaded by her is the sewing center in a house in quiet village in Chiang Mai's Don Kaew sub-district. Here, a group of 10 middle-aged women, all of them HIV-positive, are busy stitching bags, stuffed teddy bears and traditional handicrafts for sale at a single-story factory.

The women earn income while contributing to their community under the so-called Community Health Center, a project spearheaded Pimjai who was born in Chiang mai.

Built in a two-rai plot of an old cemetery near her home in Don Kaew, the single-story Community Health Center officially opened in 1996 she secured a grant from the Netherlands-based non-governmental organization Terre des Hommes. The sewing machines were ordered for job training.

She later decided to find a bigger place to house equipment and people that year and quickly became a meeting place for people in the community. Decorated at the enterance with colorful Tung, traditional northern-style flags made of hand-made paper, the center is open to everyone.

"The project is aimed at providing basic healthcare and advice for anyone who needs it," she said, adding that about 5,000 patients, both local people and ethnic minorities, currently receive free anti-retroviral treatment from the program. Funding for the last two years has come from the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Community Health Center also provides job opportunities for children, housewives and older people in the village. They can earn extra income by making detergent, handicrafts, herbal shampoo and herbal medicine.

Rather than let her illness overwhelm her, Pimjai thanks it for making her a new and "better person."

The welder-cum-social worker's dedication to helping people living with HIV/AIDS earned her one of the World's Most Outstanding Female Buddhists from the United Nations in March 2004. The award recognizes those who make great contributions to local and international society while promoting their religion. Mrs. Pimjai also served as a voice for the one million Thai people living with HIV/AIDS when she was chosen to speak at the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in July.

"Because of AIDS and social discrimination, I've realized the value of living," she said. "It's changed me from being a self-centered person to a calmer, giving and generous person. I'm happier now than ever."

But such cool and calm contentment did not come easily when the then 27-year-old learned for the first time that she had contracted HIV/AIDS from her husband.

Mrs. Pimjai said her husband had been sick for some time before the doctor diagnosed his illness. "After I got tested and found out I was HIV-positive, my heart sank. I was almost four months pregnant".

She took the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy because she did not want her child to take the risk of virus infection. About 30 percent of all children born to HIV-positive women end up with the virus themselves.

As her husband grew more frail, Mrs. Pimjai became the family breadwinner. She attended seminars, workshops and lectures on HIV/AIDS so she could better care for herself and husband until he died nine years ago.

The burden of social stigma weighed heavily. "It hurt inside and I'd cried over the smallest of things," she said. Once, her neighbors boiled noodle bowls and cleaned tables and chairs soon after she finished eating because they were afraid they would become infected.

But with her deep-rooted belief in Buddhism, which teaches her to be compassionate and focus on meditation and reading religious texts, she no longer felt angry toward her husband and neighbors.

"Anger would make things even worse, so I forgave them and chose to make the best of my life in a bid to overcome discrimination," she said.

It did not take long for Mrs. Pimjai to put her plan to create a better livelihood for people living with HIV/AIDS into practice. In early 1993, she sought support from the Eung Pung Clinic for HIV/AIDS in the province to begin a project for the community. By using her parent's house as a temporary office, she started visiting those people infected with HIV/AIDS children, women and unemployed people in particular.

It took two years to overcome discrimination in her community. Her compassion also caught the attention of the World Vision Foundation of Thailand, a Christian humanitarian organization and one of the group's sponsors. They hired her to visit northern people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

When the stint was over, Mrs. Pimjai decided to keep up work on her own, mostly visiting people in Mae Rim and San Sai districts. Her mission included providing counseling by telephone, e-mail and home visits.
In 1994, with a two-year grant from the Thai-Australia Northern AIDS Prevention and Care Program, Mrs. Pimjai expanded her work. She also set up a team to organize weekly meetings and job training for jobless HIV-positive people. The work gave support to many sufferers living in her home district of Mae Rim.

As the funding program ended in 1996, she secured another grant from Terre des Hommes to buy sewing machines.

Despite her commitment to provide anti-AIDS drugs to others, Mrs. Pimjai opted for alternative herbal treatment. "I prefer living a short but happy life every second rather than struggling to live longer by depending on medication," she said

Her CD4 count a measure of the amount of HIV in her blood was recently as low as 192, compared to a normal range of between 500 and 1,500 in adults. When an HIV-infected person's CD4 count drops below 200, he or she is generally considered to have AIDS and doctors often prescribe anti-retroviral medicine. Those with higher CD4 counts usually feel better and are less likely to get opportunistic infections.

Despite her low count, Mrs. Pimjai has never developed any AIDS-related symptoms. She has stayed healthy thanks to a variety of indigenous plants, such as tumeric and garlic, grown in her backyard.

Mrs. Pimjai continues to put forth new ideas. One of her latest initiatives is the founding of a cooperative for both HIV-positive people and those who are not infected with the virus. Having less than 100,000 baht capital during the beginning period, the project now stands on its own feet with up to 20 million baht and 3,480 members. Each member's family can receive a low-interest loan for up to 30,000 baht. Villagers saving money with the cooperative receive 8 percent annual interest, compared to 0.75 percent offered by local commercial banks.

"We should learn to work by ourselves so that the project will last longer than always asking funds from local and international authorities," she said.

Despite her apparent good health, Mrs. Pimjai knows one day the disease will catch up with her. In the meantime, she is training others to succeed her so the Community Health Center will live on.

"I don't want all my work to die with me," she said

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