Dec. 21, 2020

O’Brien Institute recognizes city emergency chief for pandemic response, life of service

Tom Sampson honoured with lifetime membership to O’Brien Institute for Public Health
Chief Tom Sampson (retd) during his time as head of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency
Chief Tom Sampson (retd) during his time as head of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency

In recognition of his passionate and thoughtful guidance in, and response to, the COVID-19 pandemic, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) has presented Calgary’s recently retired emergency chief Tom Sampson with an honourary lifetime membership.

“If I’m to be honest, (this recognition is) a bit emotional for me,” says Sampson, who retired as chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) on Nov. 30. His career highlights also include serving as chief of Calgary’s Emergency Medical Services, as commander of Canada Task Force Two, and leading or being intricately involved in the response to some of Canada’s biggest disasters, including the 2013 Calgary floods and the Fort McMurray fires.

  • Photo above: Chief Tom Sampson (retd) is pictured during his time as head of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. He officially retired from that role and the City of Calgary on Nov. 30. Photo courtesy Tom Sampson

“I’ve never been an academic, and that a group of academics of such high esteem chose me for this recognition, it is just an incredible honour,” adds Sampson. “And, I know that’s what everyone says. But, this is a guy who was a paramedic who is being recognized with this honour. That these individuals, that they would consider me as one of their own, is incredible for me.

“I so wish that my father was alive to know of this, because I was the one kid in the family who didn’t go for a university degree or become a post-graduate.”

Institute members, as part of the University of Calgary COVID-19 Taskforce, have worked closely with city council, CEMA, and Sampson from the onset of the pandemic. The recognition — in the form of membership privileges, and a certificate presented to Sampson by institute leaders in front of city officials and Mayor Naheed Nenshi days before his retirement — is the first such honour bestowed by the institute in its 10-year history and also honours Sampson’s decades of service protecting and promoting the health and well-being of Calgarians.

The coda in a storied career, the pandemic tested Sampson and left him wiser. It also left its mark.

“These other responses that I led were massive, incredibly destructive disasters, but there was little loss of life,” recalls Sampson. “With the pandemic (during the first wave), we were experiencing significant life loss. The amount of deaths we were seeing every day, it was hard not take it personally.

“But we were taken aback by how aggressive the virus was, by how hard we had to push.”

Through the course of the pandemic, Sampson has made nothing short of countless life-and-death decisions, decisions that have weighed heavily on him. He also regrets some decisions he didn’t make. But Sampson always acted with the health and well-being of Calgarians front of mind, says UCalgary Vice-President (Research) and past O’Brien Institute scientific director William Ghali.

"It is so fitting for him to now become an honorary member of the O'Brien Institute,” Ghali says.

“The honour is, in fact, ours here at the University of Calgary — to be associated with such a great leader."

Sampson is unique in his leadership and devotion to service, adds institute member and University of Calgary Centre for Health Informatics associate director Dr. Tyler Williamson, PhD.

Chief Sampson has shown incredible leadership through CEMA. Whether it is responding to a 100-year flood or a 100-year pandemic, his decisions are driven by evidence and founded in principles of equity and inclusion,” says Williamson, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the CSM.

“As I have had the privilege of working closely with Tom over these last nine months, I can say that he embodies the spirit and values of the O’Brien Institute. He is a class act and is very deserving of this recognition.”

Public health for healthy communities

The dedication to the well-being of Calgarians, and society as a whole, on the part of O’Brien Institute members was something Sampson said he found refreshing and inspiring, as did the researchers’ courage to be frank, for better or worse.

“I came from the streets, an EMS paramedic, and I always thought that we did a lot of the work. We’re the ones who cared for people, looked after them, picked up the patients and took them to hospital,” says Sampson.

“What I learned as I matured, especially being involved with the O’Brien Institute, is that public health policies are critically important to improving well-being and addressing health challenges.

“It’s the longer-term policy decisions — which way we go as a community, how we treat one another, how we look after our people that matter in a pandemic, or in an opioid crisis. This last period of time has been so good for opening my eyes to how much is there and how much more we can do.”

Chief Tom Sampson (retd) during his time as commander of Canada Task Force 2.

Chief Tom Sampson (retd) during his time as commander of Canada Task Force 2.

Courtesy Tom Sampson

CEMA and The City have been praised for making tough calls that have kept people safe, and for being flexible in a dynamic and unprecedented crisis, says Sampson. However, it was their close collaboration with the institute and the CSM, and the information that came from that relationship that has enabled The City to make the calls it’s had to make, and that “has made us better,” Sampson says.

But the science, modelling and insight researchers bring to the table would’ve amounted to little up to this point if CEMA and Sampson had not been willing to listen, says Dr. Christine Friedenreich, PhD, O’Brien Institute associate scientific director.

“We have been working closely with Tom and his colleagues since mid-March and have come to recognize his commitment, dedication, wisdom, ingenuity, problem-solving skills and energy as incredible assets for the city. He has been a remarkable person to work with and has been very gracious about any recommendations and advice that we can provide,” Friedenreich says.

“We simply wanted to thank him for what he has done for all of us.”

Summarizing his career, Sampson says  humbly, “I did try hard. I tried to make a difference."