After nearly five decades and treating close to 6,000 patients at the tiny but well-known Beach Clinic on Beech Avenue, Dr. Ebrahim Soni is retiring.
The beloved family physician arrived at the clinic in 1969 after immigrating from his home of Johannesburg, South Africa where he received his medical degree.
While he may seem like a natural now, Soni said becoming a doctor wasn’t initially on his radar. It was his older brother, who raised him after both parents passed away, who encouraged him to pursue this path.
“Our school year runs from January to December in South Africa,” Soni explained. “And in September of the year your school sends in your marks to the different universities.”
In September of that year, his brother reminded him it was time to apply to the universities.
“I was good at math and I said, ‘I want to do mathematics.’ His next words to me were, ‘I think we’ll apply for medicine,’ even though he had asked me what I wanted to do. But I didn’t question his wisdom.”
Citing his grades, Soni said he was convinced he would not get into medical school. But much to his surprise, he received a note in January announcing that he had been accepted into a medical program.
Soni completed his residency in 1962 in a Johannesburg hospital and, one year later, opened his own family practice in the city. But his fate would change a few years later when he was offered a scholarship by the DeBeers foundation to practice pediatrics in London, England.
As he was preparing to travel to London in order to finalize the details of his scholarship and practice, Soni spoke to a friend who had recently returned from Toronto.
“He said to me, I would advise you to take a look at Toronto as well. So I added Toronto to the itinerary,” he said.
While he was looking forward to visiting Canada, he had no intention of changing his UK plans.
“I came to Toronto and I went to the immigration officer … he took my passport and said, ‘What work do you do?’ And I said to him, ‘I’m a family practitioner.’ And he says, ‘I hope you like this country and I hope you stay,’” recalls Soni. “What an introduction! My god, I couldn’t believe it, you know?”
It was such a positive introduction that shortly after returning to South Africa, Soni made the bold decision to turn down the DeBeers scholarship and leave his established family practice in Johannesburg in order to move to Toronto.
Soni explained that one of the other reasons he made the decision to leave the country was more reactive. At the time, South Africa functioned on an apartheid system – a political and social system that focused on systematic racial segregation.
“The government decided that they would remove all the non-whites out of Johannesburg,” he said. “It’s a city of three million people. So they were moving all the Indians 20 miles away from Johannesburg to an Indian area. And I thought, that’s enough. My daughter was still a young baby and I thought, I’m not going to subject her to that.”
Still, leaving was not an easy decision to make. All of his siblings planned to remain in South Africa and “we were a big family. Ten kids – five boys, five girls – and no TV in those days.”
But despite leaving his family behind, Soni said Toronto is his home. The city’s open, welcoming community made him feel immediately at ease in the city and at the Beach Clinic, where a friend of his had been working.
“I was so comfortable treating the people and coming from an apartheid background – you have to understand that everything in South Africa is purely on a race basis. You’re always classified based on race, i.e. no matter what you are. Whether you’re a doctor, doesn’t matter. I came here and I started at the practice and I thought, my god what nice people.”
And it is the experiences with those nice people he will miss the most, he said.
“As much as the patients think that you’ve done a lot for them – I’ll tell you something – they’ve done a lot for me,” he said. “The mere fact that they’ve come to me, and they’re lovely people … I had more fun and enjoyment out of them, seeing them for whatever they were going through.”
That loyalty and appreciation is mutual. Soni’s patients are from the Beach and area, but they also visit from all over – Barrie, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Niagara, Hamilton, many who were used to the clinic and moved away, but still come back.
Some of those patients might be surprised to learn that for the first time in 65 years, Beach Clinic will be without a doctor. With Soni’s impending retirement, Dr. Yanofsky – the other doctor at the clinic – decided to move his practice slightly north to Main Street and Danforth Avenue.
While his retirement officially began on February 28, Soni said he’ll spend the next month or so clearing out the office.
It’s a task he hopes will help him ease into his retirement since, he joked, tapping the side of his head, “there’s a clock built in here. So I’ll still wake up at the same time.”
Musing about his next steps, he smiled as he said, “so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll probably have to find a hobby, [and] I’m going to spend some time with the grandkids.”