Angels of AIDS

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CAMBODIA

Princess Norodom Rattana Devi
A royal roams the country teaching prevention—and tolerance

Parting the throng of ox carts, bicycles and motorbikes, a Toyota SUV delivers Norodom Rattana Devi to the village of Prey Moan. A crowd waits as the king's 28-year-old granddaughter talks to a woman carrying an AIDS-stricken child. The princess strokes the 4-year-old's arm as his grandmother explains that the child's father has died of the disease and his mother and sister are also ill. Then a government official rushes over and whispers in the royal ear: "Don't touch him—he has AIDS."

That's the kind of misconception Princess Rattana is trying to stamp out with her weekly visits to Cambodia's backwaters. In a country with Asia's highest rate of HIV infection, "someone has to have the guts to talk about it," says the single princess, who was educated in France, the United States and Singapore. She speaks about condom use, has pushed for a law to protect people with HIV and AIDS or at risk of infection and plans to run for election to parliament in July. "She's like a spokesperson of the people," says Mu Sochua, minister of women's and veterans' affairs. "And the government has to listen."

Her crusade began in 1996, when her father, then co-Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh, asked her if she would fill in for him on a hospital visit to AIDS patients. "I saw a lot of people in bad shape," she recalls. "I felt frustrated and useless. No one was doing anything." Along with their undoubted practical value, her visits "help us feel warm and secure," says Ke Piseth, a 21-year-old villager whose brother was the first person to die of AIDS in Prey Moan. Says the princess: "When people are dying, being discriminated against, can't feed their family, it inspires me to go on."

UGANDA

Milly Katana
Diagnosed with HIV, an accountant leads a campaign to bring affordable medications to Africa

Milly Katana learned she was HIV-positive while working for a medical research center in 1995. "I didn't consider myself vulnerable because I'm an educated woman with a job and a car," she says. Just to be on the safe side, though, she got herself tested. When the result came back, "that was the end of me," recalls Katana, who believes she was infected by a man who has since died. "I thought I was dead."

Instead, she is helping to save millions of lives. No continent has been as ravaged by AIDS as Africa, where 30 million people are infected with HIV. Katana, 33, is one of their most prominent advocates. "My passion," she says, "is getting treatment for those people."

She does so as the only HIV-positive board member of the U.N. Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and as cofounder of the Pan-African HTV/AIDS Treatment Access Movement—based in South Africa, the epicenter of the crisis. Thanks in part to her efforts, drug manufacturers have agreed to cut prices in poor countries.

"Milly is a beacon of hope," says Dr. Helene Gayle, the Seattle-based director of the HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But, says Katana, it's just a beginning. "Sometimes I'm going mad in the meetings," she says. "I tell them, 'Time is not on our side.' We can't hang around when people are suffering."

UNITED STATES

Cathy Robinson
Stricken with AIDS after a sexual assault, she has made awareness and education her mission

Cathy Robinson was expecting her second child in 1991 when a routine blood test turned joy to horror: She was HIV-positive. Stunned, she realized she had caught the virus when she had been raped seven years earlier. "How do you keep from shaking your fist at God?" says Robinson, 37, a former teacher living in Lakeland, Fla. After her son Garrett, now 11, was born, she wrote letters to him and daughter Lyndsy, now 12—messages for milestones she thought she would never see. "Their first day of school, Lyndsy's first period, their weddings," says Robinson, who came down with full-blown AIDS in 1996. (The children are HTV-negative.) "Well, Lyndsy got her period last year and I was there."

What helps sustain her—aside from anti-AIDS drugs—is activism. In 1992 Robinson began speaking out about the disease; she now drives 70,000 miles a year throughout the Southeast to schools, conferences and churches. She also cofounded the nonprofit Friends-Together, which provides weekend camps for families coping with HIV. "She doesn't ask for pity," says Will Gregory, a professor at Florida Southern College. "My students fall in love with her."

Robinson faced another health crisis in late 1999. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she was given 18 months to live. "That was three years ago," she says. Divorced from her first husband, she wed Friends-Together director Steve Pickett, 48, this month. "I should be dead," says Robinson. "But not only am I alive, I'm actually living."

Patricia Nalls
Fighting back from the brink of death, she built a support network for the women of Washington, D.C.

In the late 1980s Patricia Nalls's world came tumbling down. Her husband, Leonard—an ex-drug user who had long been clean—died of AIDS. AIDS-related complications soon claimed youngest daughter Tiffany, 3. By then Nalls had learned that she too was HIV-positive. Down to 80 lbs., the Washington, D.C, hunger and homeless-ness advocate was given two years to live. "I bought my plot," she says, "and paid for my funeral arrangements."

Still, Nalls worked full-time to support daughter Alana, now 24, and son Shawn, 20 (both HIV-negative). She distributed flyers inviting other women to share their experiences; at the time AIDS was still considered a gay man's disease. A support group soon took shape. "We sat around talking and crying," she says. "Getting ready for death."

That was more than a decade ago. Today, at 46, the Guyana-born Nalls is relatively healthy. And her group has blossomed into the Womens Collective, which gives food, supplies and counsel to D.C. women with HIV/AIDS and their families. "She put aside her own fears to help others," says fellow activist Belinda Rochelle. "That is very brave and rare." It takes all the courage she can muster. "We hope new medicines come out—I'm kind of on my last cocktail," says Nalls. "Living with AIDS is a full-time job."

THAILAND

Kim Brown
A nurse from Cincinnati helps tribal people stay healthy—and gives them a home when they get sick

In the city of Chiang Mai, a roomful of children sing and dance to a guitar, their spirits exuberant even in the shadow of death: Many are infected with HIV. Here at the House of Love hospice, Kim Brown gives them and their ailing mothers a home until the inevitable arrives. "It's my work helping them live," she says. "And when the time comes, helping them die peacefully and with some dignity."

The refuge is part of the Health Project for Tribal People, which Brown, 52, a Cincinnati-born Baptist missionary nurse, founded with Amnuayporn, 52, a Thai nurse, in 1991. Until then, the country's ethnic minorities had been largely left out of AIDS prevention efforts. Brown's group educates them in their own dialects about HIV/AIDS and provides home care for those with HIV, who are often ostracized. "People were being kicked into forests to die," she says.

She started the hospice in 1994, after social workers brought her an AIDS-stricken prostitute and her 11-month-old daughter Da, who had nowhere to go. Brown took them under her own roof, then found a house that could hold many more. Orphaned and HIV-positive, the girl, now 9, still lives with 22 other children and three of their mothers at the facility. Da says of Brown: "She's someone who is very kind to all people." But that compassion comes at a cost. "It's always hard to watch children die," Brown says. "The best thing for me is to go to the House of Love and see their smiles."

Richard Jerome, Susan Horsburgh
Andrea Billups, Karen Emmons, Steve Helling, Cathy Nolan

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