My debt to Glenn Thomas, lost on flight MH17


Glenn Thomas, WHO media officer, profoundly influenced the course of my life and that of my husband.  He was a catalyst for the change of direction we made, from BBC journalism into aid and development work. Without Glenn, my business may not have taken the direction it has – I certainly wouldn’t be surrounded by my inspirational, world-changing colleagues, most of whom I met through this kind, funny and committed man.

As communication officer for WHO’s TB campaign, he was innovative and dogged in his resolve to make us all aware of the dangers of tuberculosis.  He was frustrated by the world’s slow response to the disease and the consequent proliferation of drug-resistant strains. This is one of the Big Three diseases – the others being AIDS and malaria. Its impact on people living with HIV is terrible – one in four now die of TB rather than AIDS.

Glenn was part of the WHO team who forged a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address this. When the Foundation awarded a multi-million dollar grant to modernize China’s TB programme, Glenn announced this to us proudly over a drink. It was characteristic: his face lit up, his voice gentle: “We did it. We did it.”

My husband, Mervyn Fletcher and I met him when we were seconded to WHO in Geneva from the BBC and assisted him in preparations for World TB Day. This secondment was Glenn’s idea, nothing like it had been done before and he and the doctors we worked with were enthusiastic. It was February 2005, a few weeks after the tsunami. Mervyn and I had supper on our last night in Geneva with someone from UNICEF whom we’d never met before.  Within a few weeks my husband had joined the agency. We sold up in London, cast ourselves off from the BBC mother ship and headed for the tsunami disaster zone in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

I was the “trailing spouse”, without a structured career for the first time since I was 18. Suddenly, Glenn popped up with another New Idea just when I most needed him – this has become a feature of the past eight years. Working with formidable women from the US pressure group, Results Educational Fund, and the head of the Lilly Fund (until recently, Eli Lilly produced critical medication to be held in reserve for patients with drug resistant forms of TB) we devised a training course for people who have become known as “TB Champions”.  Patient-activists, doctors and celebrities from all over the world were coached to give media interviews and challenge the politicians who control national health programmes. It was business like, targeted and very exciting. The first courses took place in the US. After a few days, the most outstanding “alumni” were whisked off on advocacy tours of the US and addressed senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill.

That the course continues today, in different African cities, is a tribute to Glenn and to his vision.

The TB Champions astonish me with their tenacity and energy, often in spite of chronic illness. Many would never have set foot outside their home towns had they not had the luck to survive TB and consequently become activists. Years have passed but I still remember the suffering of the young Ethiopian pharmacy student who was hospitalized for two years. He saw fellow patients commit suicide because they could no longer bear the toxic treatment for drug-resistant TB.  The doctor from Botswana who wept as he described how he’d founded his own clinic in memory of his best friend. The medical director from Delhi who stood guard outside the hospital room of a female patient, preventing her husband from serving divorce papers because he couldn’t stand the stigma of his wife having the disease.

Had it not been for Glenn, I would never have met Carol Nawina Nyirenda, an alumni of our second course.  Carol has since founded her own NGO in Zambia. Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama appointed her one of his “Unsung Heroes” at a ceremony in San Francisco.

I am now the support person when she leads training sessions. I can’t begin to describe the depth of my affection and respect for this woman, nor how she and all our other champions have enriched my life.  This weekend I helped Carol to prepare a session she’d be chairing at the Melbourne AIDS conference, interviewing the President of Botswana.  What undreamed-of journeys she and I have made.

How many people can  be described as genuinely bringing about change? Very few, especially those who, like the TB Champions, were rarely born into privilege. Yet, by force of circumstances and their own charisma they are holding to account the authorities who control their national health services.

They are modest and unaware of how remarkable they are.  That epithet also applies to Glenn.

He never gave up. With gentleness, humour, charm and tenacity he was making a difference.

The conduct of the thugs at the crash scene in Donetsk disturbs me acutely. I cannot imagine the suffering of Glenn’s partner Claudio and his beloved family.  I am trying to focus on the happy moments I spent with Glenn, sitting up late after training courses over beers or listening to him drily and affectionately recounting the camping holiday he’d arranged for his sister’s kids one chilly English summer.

I want them and Claudio to know how grateful I am to Glenn for putting my husband and myself on the road to a fulfilled life, surrounded by people who inspire us.

The world, also, has cause to be grateful to Glenn for the work he has done.



Comments ( 7 )
  • mario raviglione says:

    indeed we will all remember our friend and colleague Glenn: rarely i have met people of that quality, professionalism and loyalty to the cause of TB control world-wide. Thank you, Glenn, for all you did!

    • Suzanne Yates says:

      Dear Mario, Thank you for taking the time to leave a tribute to Glenn here and also for sharing my eulogy on the dedicated FB site. There have been some very entertaining memories shared there. It is significant that many of Glenn’s friends had stayed with him from childhood. He was very good at surrounding himself with likeable people.

  • francoise says:

    wonderful article Suzanne, thanks for posting it. Some people touch our lives in amazing ways, and this is what Glenn did. He is one who tried to make the world a better place for all. Condolences to his family and to you as his friends

    • Suzanne Yates says:

      Dear Francoise, It is lovely to hear from you and kind of you to take the trouble to write. I hope it won’t be long until we see you home in Europe. With love, Suzanne

  • Karen Bennett Van der Westhuizen says:

    Thank you, Suzanne, for this touching piece. You are so right: Glenn was well-known for his gentleness, humour and charm. I first met Glenn when I started a new job in the corporate sector, in an industry that I did not understand. I felt completely out of place, and a little overwhelmed. With his ready smile, warm words and a little joke, Glenn put me at ease within a few minutes of meeting him. He was a wonderful man and will continue to be warmly and fondly remembered for all the qualities that made him wonderful.
    My condolences to Glenn’s family, friends and colleagues.

    • Cheryl Sherry says:

      This is an amazing tribute to Glenn. I knew Glenn socially and never truly appreciated the depth of his work. Thank you so much for sharing this. I miss him every day. He was a wonderful man and my only way of coping with this tragedy is my belief that the soul lives on and that this beautiful being is needed elsewhere. I hope all the people who’s lives Glenn touched, in particular Claudio, Tracey, Jordan and Brittany can somehow find a way to come to terms with his passing.

      • Suzanne Yates says:

        Dear Cheryl
        There were many more things I could have added about Glenn, aspects of his character which are becoming clearer to me as I reflect. He was always thinking about other people and what was best for them. I share your wishes for Claudio and the family.

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