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Thomas Fischer | A Leader, A Legend, A Friend

Our Angel-in-chief is hanging up his wings and retiring from a career dedicated to giving people a second chance at life. Jan van der Merwe pays tribute to his “partner in crime” and the wit and wisdom of the legendary Thomas Fischer.
Angels team 19 December 2022


Years ago, a German mom called her young son inside and told him to clean himself up and wash his neck so he would look presentable for guests she was expecting that afternoon. The boy, who didn’t care much for either cleanliness or presentability, tried to protest but in the end wisely did as he’d been told. But something came up and the guests never arrived. When a couple of days later his mom called him again and gave him the same instruction, the boy refused outright saying: "I’m not going to because I know what will happen. I will do as you say and the guests won’t arrive just like last time, and here I will be with my clean neck and nothing to do with it."

This is still my favourite Thomas joke by far because it shows to well the dry sense of humour that makes Thomas such a loveable person. Even though I am writing this through my tears, I cannot but smile when someone asks what Thomas is like as a person. There are so many unbelievable stories that describe his personality, like the time years ago when he was still a rep in northern Germany and one late summer’s afternoon both he and the doctor he’d call on managed to fall asleep in their chairs opposite each other. Or the time he walked into a sales call only to realize that he was still wearing his house shoes (slippers).

Even though both these stories happened “before Angels”, they’ve become part of the folklore surrounding Thomas.

We have all had the privilege of experiencing Thomas, or Famous Fischer as he became known, for ourselves in all his glory. Like the day Thomas and I were asked by the Angels team in India to record a short video for a local Angels event. Thomas, always the first to include others, decided he wanted our colleagues Rita and Keiryn on either side him for the recording. As the camera started rolling Thomas said, “Hi, I’m Thomas Fischer and I’m here today with Rita Rodrigues” (turning to his left). And as he turned to his right he continued without missing a beat, “and Keiryn I forgot your surname”.

I guess you had to have been there, but I was rolling around on the floor laughing by this time, so we had to start recording from scratch.

It is not just Thomas’s calm demeanour and his quick wit that are legendary. We also learnt that he had the uncanny ability to break any technology he touched. We are certain, for example, that Thomas has a place in the training manual for our company’s IT helpdesk after he was suddenly no longer visible during Teams calls. After spending hours guiding him through uninstalling and reinstalling the programme, restarting the computer and changing every conceivable setting on his laptop camera, the technician had an inspiration. “Mr Fischer,” he said, “can you see the camera or is there a little slider that covers it?” He couldn’t see the camera, Thomas said. He had somehow managed to manually close the camera and all that was needed to solve the problem was to open the slider.


But Thomas’s real superpower was his incomparable talent for building relationships and winning the trust of influential people. It was thanks to this gift that, within two months after we got the initial go-ahead to start Angels in the emerging markets, Thomas got the then-presidents of the World Stroke Organization and the European Stroke Organisation and some of the most influential stroke neurologists in the world together for our very first steering committee meeting in November 2014.

This ability to gain trust and build partnerships has played a tremendous role in the success of Angels. But what to me was always beautiful to witness was that Thomas gave the same amount of time, respect, and attention to our assistants, and was always available to listen or to make them laugh.

It’s rare that one has a working relationship with someone where you are so aligned in thought and so comfortable around each other that we could literally complete each other’s sentences when telling stories and jokes over the many dinners we shared with our Angels.

I consider myself blessed to have worked with Thomas as partners in crime or as one of the terrible twins, as one executive used to call us.

Someone recently said we are like an old married couple, but that’s not entirely true. Thomas is like a father to me. He was the best leader I ever had. He protected me, supported all my crazy ideas, and created an environment where we could all flourish.

But most of all it felt like he loved me like a son.


Everyone keeps asking what will happen to Angels when Thomas retires. I’m more worried about what will happen to me. Because to be honest I feel a bit like the boy in his joke, the one with the clean neck and no idea what to do with it.

They say what sets a good leader apart is that his team can function just as well without him; we will certainly try our best. Because the legacy that Thomas leaves behind goes beyond the millions of lives we managed to positively impact together – it lies in the love that we all have for Thomas.

They say the hardest part of parenting is teaching a kid how to ride a bicycle, because just as important as holding the bike steady at the start, is to eventually let go and let them ride. We will stay on the bike, and we will continue this legacy we built together, in his honour.


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