Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Mahidol Experience (Michael and Alexi go to Bangkok)

As Princesses go… I cannot finish that sentence because, in truth, my experience of Royal Princesses is somewhat limited. I’ll simply have to imagine whether the Thai Royal Princess, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, really is more modest and straightforward than others. Now that I think about it, I am not at all sure how many others there are. But this Thai Royal Family has a history, at least since Rama I in 1782.

Nor can I pretend that a black tie banquet at a Royal Palace, sitting next to her majesty, and preceded by an award ceremony where she presented me with Prince Mahidol Award for Public Health, was just another one of those things. Nor can I think it routine to sit with the Princess at coffee the next morning, and then walk with her around an exhibition to honour Prince Mahidol, her grandfather. Nor was it quite ordinary taking high tea with the Prime Minister, nor yet was dinner in my honour at the British Embassy in Bangkok and a reception at the US Embassy, and a dinner hosted by the Minister of Public Health, and lunches, and a private tour of the Royal Palace including the stupendous temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Nor, regrettably, can I take for granted the policeman on a motorbike with flashing red light that eased the passage of our royal limousine through Bangkok’s traffic – although I did ask if I could have one of those to take home with me. Nor is it the new normal to be met at the airport in the early hours of Sunday morning by a gracious royal emissary.

In fact the whole six days spent in Bangkok were simply quite extraordinary. To say that my wife and I were given the royal treatment hardly does justice to the whole experience. The gracious dinner at the Thai Medical Association with the whole council, and organised by former WMA President, Wonchat Subhatchaturas, set the tone for everything that was to follow.

At one of my many “impromptu” speeches – by the end of the week, I was expecting the unexpected calls to say a few words at lunches, dinners and press interviews – I reflected that this week of celebration was something really special: celebration of scholarship in the service of humanity. The Royal Princess, the prime minister and senior ministers, the brass bands, the medical students, doctors, nurses, deans and professors were all celebrating these awards. And the awards were for contributions to Medicine and Public Health. As I said in another of my unscripted remarks, one does not pursue research and then policy action to gain an award. The award is a celebration that comes after the fact. In my case, the fact that the award was for social determinants of health and health equity validates and gives succour to ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ (Henry V) who have toiled in this field.

What do you talk to a Princess about? Why, social determinants of health of course. What else is there? I led up to it.

In my three minutes address at the Royal Banquet, I commented on the inspiration provided by Prince Mahidol. He was told by his father that he would have a senior position in the Navy. He decided he could do more good for the people of Thailand by studying medicine than by working in the military. He took himself off to Harvard and while studying pre-medicine, ‘discovered’ public health and returned to Thailand with a diploma from MIT and Harvard. Subsequently he went back to Harvard to finish medicine.

At the banquet I was sitting between the princess and a gentleman in splendid formal jacket of Thai silk. It turned out he was the very model of modern major-general, a former head of the Thai military. I asked if what I had said about Prince Mahidol had offended. Not at all, he said, he agreed. I then filled his head with the importance of cross-government action on social determinants and health equity, and said that I would seek to convince the Princess that her government should set up a cross-government mechanism to take action forward. He said he agreed with that too and encouraged me to turn attention to Her Majesty. I did. She listened, adding observations along the way.

As we went into post-dinner coffee in yet another splendid room of the Palace, I told the Major-general that I had got half way there but I needed his help to get the rest of the way. At high tea with the PM, the next day, I continued the theme. Let’s see.

I laid out some of my thoughts about it in my ten minute ‘award-winner’s’ speech to the Prince Mahidol Award Conference – see separate entry.

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