Rohan Kay in Chiang Mai
Tay first suspected she was HIV positive when her husband of three years fell ill in 1996 and died a month later. It was then that she took a blood test.
Noy was in the US a year later when weeping sores began appearing all over his body. He returned to Thailand to be told by a doctor he was HIV positive.
Their lives, Tay and Noy believed then, were over.
"I lost all hope after I learnt I was HIV positive," remembers Noy, 35. "I thought I was going to die within seven days. I even transferred ownership of my house to relatives in preparation of my death."
Tay, 31, glances at Noy and smiles. Tay and Noy are now married to each other. They each have a job and a reason to live.
The turnaround in their lives came when they both left their home towns and took the bus to Bangkok, each in search of a place they had been discretely told was called Wednesday Friends Club.
"Wednesday Friends Club changed my life," says Noy. "There I met people who really understood me. They understood why I had the impulse to withdraw from my friends and family." The Wednesday Friends Club is an anonymous clinic, a care centre for HIV positive people which was set up and co-managed by HIV positive staff of the Thai Red Cross. Each member of the club is a caregiver to other members, seeing that they are taken care of when they are ill and being a good friend when they are not.
The self-support group also offers a treatment referral system, thanks to funding from the Thai Red Cross, for access to anti-retroviral treatment. Noy and Tay are themselves on anti-retroviral drugs. This has given them the level of health to become full staff members with the Thai Red Cross at the Wednesday Friends Club. Though Tay, Noy admits is the boss.
Noy's admission is followed by peals of laughter. "She's a good boss though," he interjects.
The laughter is bittersweet for Joy and Toey, a married couple in their mid-twenties from neighbouring Laos. They are also HIV positive but, unlike Noy and Tay, have no access to anti-retroviral treatment or a care centre like Wednesday Friends Club.
"I want to set up a care centre for HIV positive people," proclaims Joy, who is an HIV/AIDS counsellor with the Lao Red Cross. "I want to offer positive people a refuge from the kind of prejudice I faced when I was first diagnosed a year ago, around the time I got married.
"People in my village said I had AIDS but I did not know for sure because there was no way of getting tested. They shunned me and taunted me for having AIDS, even though they had no way of knowing."
Without life-prolonging drugs, Joy's fate is less secure than Noy's and Tay's. But her soft features and slim build belie an iron will."Just because my husband and I are HIV positive doesn't mean we will die suddenly," she states. "We can live just as long as other people. One of our greatest needs now is drugs. That's what people are given for other diseases isn't it?"
Still, Joy is proud to be taking a stand by calling on her Red Cross to set up a care centre for positive people in Laos, cared for by Red Cross volunteers."I feel good knowing that positive people may soon have a place to call home," she smiles.
In the space of five years, Tay and Noy and Joy and Toey have gone from testing negative to positive for HIV; they have descended into the deepest depressions and they have clambered back to reach a state of grace."I am happy with my life," says Noy. "I am still healthy, and I receive love and care from my wife and friends. What more could I want?"
Tay, Noy, Joy and Toey (not their real names) were interviewed for this story two days after attending a Lao Red Cross-run workshop in parallel to the International Conference on Home and Community Care for People with HIV/AIDS held in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
This workshop which brought together 12 Lao Red Cross health volunteers and three representatives of the Thai Red Cross Wednesday Friends Club culminated in the recommendation for a Lao Red Cross-run care centre to be introduced for HIV positive people in Laos. At the meeting, participants exchanged their experiences, shared best practices and looked into future collaborations. The workshop was chaired by Dr Vilaphanh Silitham, director of the Lao Red Cross health department, and Dr Soulany Chansy, deputy manager of the society's HIV/AIDS project.
The decision to introduce such a centre was made after five members of the meeting related experiences of woeful care and support in their Laotian communities. The 12 Lao Red Cross participants said HIV positive people in Laos had to have access to care and support services. They recommended the care group for positive people in Laos be established along similar lines to the Wednesday Friends Club.
"We must build on our HIV/AIDS projects. We must offer hope to positive people," said Dr Soulany. "That is what our Lao Red Cross volunteers are telling us."