Robert Sallows, 1987 – 2018
‘In so many ways, we could be a lot more like him.’
Robert Sallows, local politico and organ donation advocate, died in a Red Deer hospice in October after a year-long struggle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was 31.
Since his early involvement as a university student with the Progressive Conservative Youth Association (PCYA), Sallows had become a steady and beloved fixture in Alberta political circles.
A friend to fellow politicos across the ideological spectrum, he was a warm and welcome presence at bi-partisan pub nights and passionate debates held between plates of chicken wings—a semi-regular get-together known as Poliwings.
"I always joked that he was 20-something going on 90. He just had an old soul," said Troy Wason, who was impressed with Sallows during the latter's involvement with the PCYA.
"I remember that he had a Tilley hat because it was raining. He had gloves, mufflers and a scarf and I thought, 'Oh my God, I am dealing with my grandfather!'"
“Robert had this ease of being able to cross (party lines) without intimidating people or making them feel like their ideas were lesser.”
After an impassioned sartorial defence by Sallows, however, Wason came around to the utility of the Tilley hat—and eventually bought one for himself.
That was very like Sallows, who earned a Bachelor of Commerce in finance at the University of Calgary; he had a deep understanding of rules, procedures and mathematics and could, more often than not, persuade a dispassionate crowd of the proper way to go about things.
Even as a member of the PCYA, Wason admits that Sallows knew Robert's Rules of Order better than many on the Progressive Conservative party's more senior board.
"Robert had this ease of being able to cross (party lines) without intimidating people or making them feel like their ideas were lesser," said Wason.
"In so many ways, we could be a lot more like him. He was a throwback to a more civilized period when people could agree to disagree."
A gentle nature coupled with fierce knowledge is a powerful combination that many people in politics try, and fail, to cultivate.
For Sallows, the Progressive Conservatives and the political milieu that surrounded it became a surrogate family. (The PC party merged with the Wildrose Party in 2017 to form the United Conservative Party.)
After he graduated from university, Sallows went on to work on several political campaigns. He also served for the Canadian Transplant Association as a board member.
He proved particularly talented in information technology, and was one of a select few members of the Progressive Conservative party who could effectively navigate the party's terrible old voter database, according to Wason.
Sallows was gifted at diplomacy and numbers, but when it came to his physical health, he was dealt an astonishingly unlucky hand. At birth, he was diagnosed with Noonan syndrome, a disorder that led to his short stature and some developmental delays.
“He was brilliant in math, but he would say he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body.”
"He had lots of one-liners and he was intrigued with trucks and cars alike," said Sallows' mother, Kathy McGillivray. "He would be sitting in his car seat in the back and tell me what kind of vehicle by looking at the hubcaps and saying the logos on them."
"He was brilliant in math, but he would say he didn't have an artistic bone in his body. So if he was given a poem and told to analyze it, he would say a flower was a flower and he wasn't reading any more into it."
By the sixth grade, Sallows was found to have a learning disability, though he retained an extraordinary talent for mathematics. He was placed in Foothills Academy, which helped him learn how to break down overwhelming or complicated problems into manageable pieces.
What he learned there would carry him through university.
At age 9, Sallows was diagnosed with a severe form of pulmonary hypertension, which led to years of experimental treatments and aggressive medications. Despite this, he remained an active member of his school community, even winning class president in his senior year.
"He took a bus every morning and figured out very early, 'Hey, if I bring bags of candy for the kids on the bus, they are going to vote for me.' Then he went a step further and began greeting other buses and handing out candy."
"He won that election," McGillivray said.
But the medication intended to keep his lung disorder in check was failing. A few months after he won class president, Sallows, then only 17, underwent surgery for a double lung transplant.
"With pulmonary hypertension, the heart is trying to pump blood into the lungs through capillaries that are the size of a dime that would normally be the size of a quarter," McGillivray said. "So consequently, the strain on the heart was huge."
"When the surgeon who did the surgery finished, the first thing he said out of his mouth was that was the largest heart he had ever seen in anybody living."
With the new lungs, the strain on Sallow's heart rapidly diminished and returned to an ordinary size. The transplant was a success, and McGillivray said Sallows was extremely lucky.
Though Sallows often tired easily, and needed an extra year to finish his university degree, the new lungs allowed him to live an active and happy life for more than 14 years.
He moved out of his parents' house, joined politics, got a job with a bank, and enjoyed a large circle of friends.
Sallows also became an advocate for organ donation, attending several Canadian Transplant Games and consulting with then-MLA Len Webber on the Alberta government's Human Tissue and Organ Donation Amendment Act of 2013. The bill opened the way for an online organ and tissue donation registry.
"The first time I met him and found out about his double lung transplant, I signed a donor card," said Josh Traptow, a longtime friend.
Webber, who now sits as a Member of Parliament, introduced Bill C-316, a private member's bill now before the Senate, which would ask Canadians on their income tax returns whether they consent to be organ donors.
“The first time I met him and found out about his double lung transplant, I signed a donor card.”
Sallows seemed to have transcended the physical ailments and challenges of his childhood, until 2017.
Early last year, Sallows told his mother that he wasn't eating very well.
"I finally did the Mama Bear thing and phoned the doctors and said, 'Something is not right here,'" she said.
In June, they discovered a tumour in his stomach and small intestine, an extremely rare duodenal adenocarcinoma. He was quickly admitted for surgery, but recovery was long and difficult and Sallows moved back in with his mother in her retirement home near Gull Lake.
He began chemotherapy that fall, but his health did not improve.
Within a few months, the cancer had spread to his stomach, liver, lungs, small intestine and lymph nodes. The diagnosis was terminal.
Despite this, Sallows accepted the news with the same grace and equanimity that had carried him through childhood. He never complained. He never objected.
His only wish was to attend a final Canadian Transplant Games in Vancouver that summer so that he could spend time with and support his friends.
Sallows accepted the news with the same grace and equanimity that had carried him through childhood.
For his final birthday, his friends gathered at the lake for a surprise party; meanwhile, the political community from across the province began a birthday-card writing campaign.
"There were birthday cards every time I went to the mailbox, 20 birthday cards," McGillivray said. "The next day there were 12 birthday cards. Each one of them had encouraging messages in them."
When Sallows struggled, his mother said: "'Why don't I read you these?' We would go through all the messages and I said, 'You're very lucky here because you're basically hearing all the things that people say at funerals, and they don't get to hear it.'"
"'You're just getting it all now and it's kind of a blessing.''"
Sallows was in regular touch with his close friends to the end. He spent his final days in palliative care and passed on October 20. As per one of his final requests, he donated his own organs.
His eyes have gone on to help two other people regain their sight.
After his passing, in lieu of flowers, Sallows' families requested that donations be made to the Canadian Transplant Association.
Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. She is a contributing editor at Maclean's, journalist-in-residence at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Law, and co-host of the biweekly Canadian politics podcast, Oppo.
If you value independent Calgary journalism, please sign up as a monthly supporter of The Sprawl. We're crowdfunded, ad-free and made in Calgary.
Support in-depth Calgary journalism.Sign me up!
We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can't do it alone. We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!