Two days before being honoured by a royal Thai trust, former health minister, Professor Sheila Tlou, was elected to what the New York Times calls the United States’ “most esteemed and authoritative adviser on issues of health and medicine” whose reports “can transform medical thinking around the world.”
On Monday, Tlou (“Shegal” to her friends) learnt that she has been elected a foreign associate of the Institute of Medicine, a US NGO which was established 44 years ago under the congressional charter of the National Academy of Sciences. Members are elected on the basis of their professional achievement and commitment to service. New members are elected by current active members through a selective process that recognises individuals who are have made major contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care and public health. The Institute charter stipulates that at least one-quarter of the membership must be selected from outside the health professions.
Tlou is one of three foreign associates from Africa; the others are Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director of General Referral Hospital (Obstetrics and gynaecology) at the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic republic of Congo and Professor Karim Quarraisha of the centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
Tlou received the good news in Bangkok, Thailand where she received the Princess Srinagarindra Award for 2014. One of the most prestigious awards in the country, it was established in honour of the mother of the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The notification letter suggested there would be pomp and ceremony but it was not until she got to the airport that Tlou realised just how much prestige is attached to this award and how “exhilarating” her experience would be. She and her mother (who accompanied her) were given royal treatment every step of the way and on Monday, “The pomp and circumstance was so much … that mom actually shed a tear.” Getting off the plane at the airport, she walked into a reception laid out for her and afterwards was whisked to the head of each queue in the airport terminal as she cleared customs and immigration.
“As long as I was in a section, the poor tourists were made to wait in line until I finished with the section,” Tlou says.
Then it was the VIP lounge where she was interviewed by the national media. When she was done with the interviews, she was led to a gleaming Mercedes Benz with a royal crest and chauffeured to her hotel under police escort. At this point in time, King Adulyadej was hospitalised and it was arranged that Tlou visit his sickbed to pay her respects – with TV crews in tow. After the hospital visit, she toured the Royal Grand Palace where she received her award on Wednesday in the Mulasathan Boroma Asana Hall.
Appointed health minister in 2004 by Festus Mogae, Tlou was dropped from cabinet four years upon Ian Khama’s ascension. Later, she relocated to Johannesburg where she currently works as Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa at UNAIDS.