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I was the voice of the TTC for 11 years. After a devastating heart attack, I switched tracks and became a barber

“I thought it would be neat to give other people that good feeling you get after a haircut. The only problem: I had never cut hair before”

By Brad Ross, As Told To Alex Cyr
I was the voice of the TTC for 11 years. After a devastating heart attack, I switched tracks and became a barber

After working in communications for 40 years, I retired in December of 2022. I was in my fourth year as chief communications officer for the City of Toronto, and before that I’d spent 11 years as a spokesperson for the TTC. I loved my career, but the last three years had been arduous: the city’s pandemic response occupied every moment of my life, seven days a week. We collected the latest information from our health authorities, attended press conferences and prepared news releases about masks, economic recovery, kids getting pulled from school, kids going back to school, businesses closing and opening again, and vaccine campaigns. I was lucky to work with an amazing team, but by last summer, I felt like I was running out of gas.

Retiring had its perks, at first: I binged whatever TV show I wanted and went for walks in the middle of the afternoon. Life felt especially quiet because I had relocated to Oro Medonte—a 30,000-person town on the North Shore of Lake Simcoe—with my wife, Pam, during the pandemic, after spending most of my life downtown and in East York. Here, we’re surrounded by horse farms and shrouded in foliage. It’s incredibly peaceful.

But, after a few weeks of not working, I grew restless. I realized that, at 59, I was too young to just sit on the porch and watch the world go by. I wanted to do something new and creative that would enable me to engage with people. I thought about going into communications consulting, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to get out of that field entirely—it had been a good run, but it was time for something new. 

Barbering had always tugged at me. I’d donned a bunch of different hairstyles over the years—very long, very short and even a mullet in the 1980s—and I’d liked grooming and dressing nicely for TV appearances when I was at the TTC. I thought it would be neat to give other people that good feeling you get after a fresh haircut. The only problem: I had never cut hair before. I asked my barber, Kristyn, how people get into the business. She told me that barbering is taught on the ground (as opposed to hair styling, which requires two to three years of schooling) and that her husband, who is also a barber, would be happy to speak to me about apprenticing. I soon had a start date of March 3 at History Barbershop in Midland. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Less than a week before my first day, I hit a major snag. It was 9 a.m. on Monday, February 27, and I had just finished a home workout. I couldn’t catch my breath, so I sat down, but my breathing wasn’t improving. I knew that something wasn’t right. My shortness of breath seemed like a symptom of a heart issue, and I know a thing or two about those: they run in both sides of my family, and my father had quintuple bypass surgery 20 years ago. But I thought, I’m 59—that’s too young for a heart attack! Don’t they happen to people who are much older or very overweight? Sure, I’d been a smoker for part of my life, but I was leading a relatively healthy lifestyle now, eating well and exercising. Still, I asked my wife to call 911. 

The ambulance arrived at our house within minutes. Simcoe County paramedics rushed in and hooked me to a monitor to read my vitals. I was winded and anxious, and I couldn’t get comfortable. The paramedics confirmed my fears: “You’re having a heart attack,” they told me. They drove me by ambulance to the hospital. On the ride over, I took nitroglycerin to numb the pain—the pressure on my chest was excruciating, and it was getting progressively worse. I was soon rushed through the hospital doors and up an elevator to the catheterization lab, where a team of medical professionals was waiting for me. They put a stent in my artery to unclog it and allow the blood to flow. By 10:25 a.m., I was calling Pam from the hospital bed to tell her that I was okay but that I had suffered a myocardial infarction, which is what people who’ve had heart attacks call them. This one, the doctors told me, was known as a widowmaker, which is when the left anterior descending artery becomes clogged with plaque and causes the blood to clot. It’s a major problem: that artery supplies 50 per cent of the heart’s oxygen. This type of heart attack often kills—it has about a 12 per cent survival rate—but the faster the intervention, the higher the chance of survival. When I heard that, I felt terrified but fortunate. I had put my life in the doctors’ capable hands, and they had saved me.

I returned home after three days and soon felt like my old self. But I was not allowed to drive for a month, and I started to feel like one of our dogs—the most exciting part of my day was when my wife agreed to take me to the grocery store. My heart attack motivated me to become a barber even more: I realized what it was like to be stuck at home all day. Luckily, the shop allowed me to begin my apprenticeship in early May, to give me time to recover. 

At History, I started at the bottom. The first week mainly involved sweeping hair and folding towels. But the development curve is steep—soon I was learning how to properly hold scissors, practicing cutting hair on mannequin heads, shaving the backs of necks and trimming eyebrows. I haven’t had any mishaps yet, thankfully, but touching the ears of perfect strangers takes some getting used to. I also made a Spotify account for the shop—it had been playing the same songs every day, like that 1970s hit “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. That’s a fun tune to hear maybe once a year, but now I hate it. I found some barbershop playlists—without the quartet numbers—to give us some variety. I’m having fun on the job, but I realized it was far easier to envision myself as a barber, standing behind a chair and making people look and feel good, than to actually pick up the tools and put them to use. I’m just one month in, and it usually takes six to learn how to cut hair on your own. Knowing that I’m on my way there is encouraging.

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The nature and pace of the job is different from what I’m used to. Here, I’m not going to field late-night phone calls about a crisis—at least no crisis that a little pomade can’t fix. It’s made me think about how we work and whether my heart attack may have been caused by stress at my old job. I don’t want to blame it all on the job, though; being a chief communications officer was demanding, but I enjoyed my work and liked my colleagues. The heart attack was likely caused by an accumulation of things: genetics, smoking and probably a little stress.

It’s tricky because there is good stress too. I fed off the adrenalin of dealing with crises as part of a skilled team, and I felt like I still needed a bit of that in my life. Barbering has its own kinds of stress—sticking to a schedule, navigating a busy shop and, of course, not screwing up someone’s hair. There’s also the good stress of learning something new. Writing news releases had become second nature to me. Here, every day is a new challenge, and I’m loving it. I want to spend the next few years honing my craft while balancing it out with golf a couple of nights a week and spending time with family and friends. Through it all, I’m eating healthy and following a cardiac rehab program. I ride my Peloton for 30 minutes each morning and lift weights every second day, all without letting my heart rate get above 140 beats per minute, which is recommended to prevent another cardiac event. I’m committed to my healthy lifestyle; I don’t want to make my wife a widow. I’m grateful to have been given this next chapter—I call it Act III—and I hope it lasts for a long time.

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