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It Takes A Village

April 12, 2013

As some of you may know, I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, and was raised by a single mother on Summit Avenue. Our neighbours acted like surrogate families, stepping in whenever my mother needed help. I recently wrote about these experiences in “It Takes A Village,” a short fictional account of a real story, which was published in the Spring 2013 edition of Women of Influence magazine. Today, I would like to share it with all of you—I hope that you enjoy the read!  

Sharon Johnston

It Takes A Village

Several of the younger doctors requested to be home the evening of Halloween. Nora offered to work the late shift saying her teenage son could babysit his young brother. It’s an advantage, she thought, to have an age gap between my two boys. The gap was the time it took to finish medical school and specialize in emergency care. Fifteen-year-old Brent had offered to take his four-year-old brother, Nick, out trick-or-treating in the neighbourhood. Nora’s husband was off on a business trip for a few days. Brent was a student at Upper Canada College, and Nick attended a day nursery nearby. She wondered if she’d ever get to meet the neighbours. Nora shrugged as she drove away, thinking her day started at 5 and often ended at 10. And the emergency department was so short-staffed that she frequently worked double shifts.

A belligerent drunk, a beaten-up prostitute, a man hallucinating, a child bitten by a stray dog while collecting treats, and a woman who had swallowed a piece of fudge laced with bits of razor were not unusual cases for a Halloween night. The evening continued with most patients coming to emergency because they didn’t have a family doctor. Nora turned to glance at the clock. She felt exhausted after five hours on her feet. She swiveled to face the voice of a police officer.

“I’m looking for Dr. Nora Smith.”

“I’m Dr. Smith,” she said. “What’s happened?” She couldn’t control the panic in her voice.

Nora felt a cold sharp pain in her back. “What has Brent done?” she asked.

“We have your young son, Nick. He was found riding his tricycle in his Darth Vader costume at 2 in the morning.”

“Didn’t anyone think to bring my little boy inside and call me to let me know what had happened?”

The police officer shuffled uncomfortably. “Dr. Smith, we went from house to house. None of your neighbours knew where you worked, let alone your phone number. And one said if he had brought in a small child, he’d be called a pedophile.”

“Let’s go get my son,” Nora said, as she removed her white coat.

The Sunday after Nora’s rude awakening, she visited her neighbours.

“Hi, I’m Nora Smith. I work at the Toronto General Emergency Department. I’m sorry my son created such a disturbance.” Her neighbours apologized in turn. “I’m a child psychologist,” one revealed as Nora went door to door. “But the moment I had my first baby, I wanted to stay home until he started school. I disappointed my own parents because I’m a Fulbright Scholar. And they thought I should carry on my clinical practice.”

“Would you take on my older son as a private patient?” Nora asked.

This was the start of the Street Alliance, where each neighbour put forward a talent that he or she was willing to share. Most homes had two working parents. But there was a stay-at-home dad, a gay couple and three moms who were professionals taking extended leave. The talent pools included preparation of wills, medicine, investment counseling, afterschool care, psychological counseling, sports coaching, and gourmet cooking lessons. Some talents were a result of hobbies, others aligned with neighbours’ work. Halloween became the annual excuse to throw a Street Alliance party to celebrate neighbourliness. The party became so popular, residents on the next block tried to crash it.