How frontline workers in Toronto find comfort

A TTC driver, a grocery store worker, a therapist and two ICU doctors share their strategies for relaxing during the coronavirus pandemic

Essential workers take a risk every time they step out of the house: any client they serve, colleague they assist, product they handle or door they open could expose them, and subsequently their household, to COVID-19.

“Every day I go to work is like Russian roulette,” says TTC bus driver Jonathan Costa. “Personally, I enjoy my job. The added health risk is stressful.”

Costa not only feels the stress but sees it in the people riding his bus.

“Most of the people I take are people going out for work, food or doctor appointments,” says Costa. “They don’t want to be out as much as we don’t want to be out.”

Costa is among the essential workers who spoke to NOW about how they relax and tend to their mental health in stressful times. We also spoke with a personal shopper at a major grocery chain, an instructor therapist who works with people with autism, and two ICU doctors about how to cope with and disconnect from the pressures of being essential.

Jonathan Costa, bus driver

How he relaxes: Gardening

“I get satisfaction from seeing something thrive,” says the TTC driver. “Something is living because I’m giving care to it.”

When Costa comes home, he immediately throws his clothes in the laundry and jumps in the shower, making sure he’s sanitized before seeing his family. Then, he relaxes.

“I put on some coffee and go lie in my RV,” says Costa, who has a camper in his backyard. “I hear the birds chirping, pretend I’m camping. Or when it’s nice and hot, I sit outside and enjoy my palm tree.”

That’s right – he has a palm tree, which he picked up at Norfolk Exotics. The cold-hardy palm tree is a species from the Himalayan mountains that, with a little help, can survive a Toronto winter. When it’s surrounded by snow, Costa adorns it in holiday lighting.  His unexpected foliage frequently draws admirers, including city forestry officers. They’ll tell him: “We got a report that you had a palm tree growing, and we just wanted to see if it’s true.”

The palm tree is his conduit to a tropical state of mind while also creating a practical  challenge that serves as his therapeutic hobby.

“It’s simple to grow a pine tree,” says Costa. “Something that totally doesn’t belong here but can survive and grow is worth putting effort into. A palm tree is fighting and thriving. In the summer time, it’s my reward. I get to sit beside it, crack a cold one and enjoy it. It puts me in a happy place.”

Michael, instructor therapist

How he relaxes: Online education

Before COVID-19, Michael’s job would involve one-on-one sessions with autistic children and adults, visiting them at their homes and mixing outdoor activities and exercise with education and counselling.

“They don’t understand what’s actually going on,” says Michael, explaining that his clients are now more stressed because outdoor activities have been nixed.

Michael works privately, making house calls from Scarborough to well-off clients all over the city during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because his clients are sidestepping certain public health norms, he wishes to remain anonymous. (His name is an alias.)

After looking into creative ways to help his clients cope with the pandemic, Michael found himself doing things he’d been too busy to do before.

“I’m trying to learn how to use a computer,” he says, adding that his tech use is limited to email, Google and YouTube videos that feed his passion for soccer. Now, he’s taking the time to educate himself, taking advantage of free online courses provided by Ivy League schools.

“If I don’t, I’ll go crazy,” says Michael, who explains that he is keeping his mind active, lest he give in to worry.  “I’m just trying to appreciate everything that I have around me and make use of it.”

Jason, personal shopper at a grocery store

How he relaxes: Watching the news

Staying informed is Jason’s way of conquering stress. He’s a personal shopper at a major grocery chain, who – like so many frontline workers – has asked that we not use his real name, fearing disciplinary action from his employer. His job is roaming the store and collecting groceries for customers who place online orders while navigating his way between people who do and don’t wear masks. What makes Jason anxious is the hoarding that’s sending grocery sales through the roof.

 “People were not taught about the pandemic in the correct way,” he says, “which made people panic. They’re buying as much resources as they can. That’s the only way they can cope.

“When people are not informed, that’s when there’s panic,” he adds. “That’s why there’s no toilet paper!”

Jason spends evenings watching the news. He doesn’t have access to information during his long shifts so after work is his only opportunity to get up-to-date on the latest COVID-19 information.

“You’ve got to believe your local news,” says Jason. “What people need to do to relax is watch the news. Stay informed. In the end, you have to know what’s right and be comfortable with the situation.”  

Dr. Ray Guo & Dr. Subarna Thirugnanam, intensive care unit physicians

How they relax: Running, journaling and communication

Talking through concerns and worries with fellow doctors and hospital staff has been an integral part of how Guo and Thirugnanam function on the job. Guo works for Scarborough Health Network and Thirugnanam is at Markham-Stouffville Hospital. The critical care physicians care for patients who need life support.

“My goal is always to pull people back from the abyss,” says Thirugnanam, speaking to me after the tail-end of a weekend shift.

ICU physician shifts vary by hospital. Guo can be on from anywhere between 10 to 30 hours at a time. Thirugnanam typically works on call for a full week – say, Monday 8 am to the next Monday at 8 am. Because the job is so exhausting, that would be her entire work allotment for a month.

“That was working well up until COVID,” says Thirugnanam, who has been on call on and off for the better part of a month. “Now it’s all hands on deck.”

“During COVID, we’re dealing with the normal stresses plus an actual danger to ourselves, more than usual,” says Guo, emphasizing the volume of patients and dwindling PPE supplies while facing a highly contagious virus.

Guo would typically get through gruelling shifts by taking it one step at a time, and staying focused on the light at the end of the tunnel: going home to his family and perhaps going out for dinner.

“With COVID, a lot of the things that people look forward to no longer exist,” says Guo, who says he simply looks forward to seeing his wife and his dog, going for walks and watching Netflix. “If you try to imagine the entirety of what’s going on, it’s difficult to get your mind around it. So you break your week or day down to when is the next time normal activities could be done.”

Thirugnanam also looks forward to being at home with her family and going out for early morning runs.

“A 30-minute run outside does wonders for me,” she says. “The fresh air, sun and wind on your face as you’re running is very cathartic and therapeutic for me.”

Thirugnanam also keeps a journal, writing in it two or three times a day like she has since she was eight years old as an outlet for her frustrations.

Both Guo and Thirugnanam share an essential coping mechanism: talking.

Guo’s wife is an emergency doctor. When they’re home, they cope by trading battle stories.

“We talk through the more difficult cases, the more interesting things we’ve seen through the day and the things we want another perspective on,” he says.

“My biggest support group, because we’re all in it together, is the team at work,” says Thirugnanam. “The people that I’m in the trenches with know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“We have daily debriefs where we talk about what we could do better, what we are worried about. We are a very open team. We address each person’s concern or worry head on.”

Both doctors also have a helpline they can call if they need to speak to therapists and other mental health experts. People looking for the same help during the COVID-19 pandemic can use resources like to find counselling.

“That act of realizing that there are other people who feel the same way – that what I’m feeling is normal and that there is solutions to this – makes a big difference to me,” says Thirugnanam.


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