RUSHVILLE, Ill. — Stepping into the office of Dr. Russell Dohner feels like a trip back in time. At his one-man practice, the phones are rotary, the records are hand-written, and the charge — since the 1970s — has been just $5. It's a fee that the 87-year-old family physician refuses to change because, he says, "most everyone can afford $5." And if they can't, he says with a shrug, "we see them anyway."
And so, even before his clinic opens at 9 a.m., the line out front is already 12 people deep. Factory workers with callused hands. Farmers in muddy work boots. Senior citizens leaning on canes and slumping teenagers with spiky hair.
All day long, they pack the gray vinyl seats in the waiting room. So many people come that, on a recent day, there wasn't a seat for Larry Lenover, a 64-year-old heavy equipment operator, who was happy to stand because, he says, "Dr. Dohner cares about everyone. It doesn't matter if you got money, or you don't."
That open-door policy has made Dohner a beloved figure in Rushville, Ill., a city of 3,200 people — about 60 miles northwest of Springfield, Ill. — that has suffered from a drumbeat of factory closings and layoffs.
But it's not just the $5 fee that keeps the locals lining up. It is, they say, the kindness he has shown and the impact of his care. It is, in short, Dr. Dohner, a calm and gentle presence in a rumpled suit and fedora hat, who has, for nearly six decades, held the hand of the dying, tended to the sick and injured, and helped everyone else get on with the business of living.
There was the baby girl who suffered from seizures. "He would come to the house and sit beside her crib all night," recalled the girl's sister, Lynn Stambaugh, now 49 and still touched by the memory. And the gasoline fire that left a 10-year-old boy badly burned. That child survived in large part because there was a doctor in town — Dohner, of course — who was in the emergency room that day.
"He loves the people in this community," says Mayor Scott Thompson, 51, who, like most people over the age of 30, was delivered by Dohner. "And the thing is, people love him back."
He is a small man whose large eyeglasses, bald head, and tufts of thinning white hair, just above his ears, give him the look of a wise, old owl. Stooped and increasingly frail, he moves slowly, barely picking up his feet as he shuffles between exam rooms.
But he continues to work because he knows, if not for his low fee, many couldn't afford medical care.
"I never went into medicine to make money," he says. "I wanted to be a doctor, taking care of people."
He works seven days a week, opening his office for an hour before church on Sundays. He has never taken a vacation, and rarely left Schulyer County, except for the occasional medical conference.
If someone gently suggests that he cut back, his answer is always the same.
"What if someone needs me?"
The day begins at 8 a.m. at the one-story, 25-bed hospital in Rushville, where every morning he handles paperwork and visits patients.
Next stop is the red-brick storefront on the town square where he has practiced for 57 years.
All day long, patients cycle in and out the door. Dohner pats the knee of Ethan Deloche, a teary 4-year-old who came in with an itchy rash. "Let's get him some Prednisone tablets," says Dohner, handing a prescription to the boy's harried mother.
A moment later, he removes stitches and places a bandage on the arm of Harold Morrell, 86. "Just leave that on for a day or two, and I think you'll be all right," he says.
He moves slowly and steadily, up and down the office hallway.
Everyone is seen on a first-come, first-served basis.
Records — going back five decades — are kept on handwritten, 4-by-6-inch index cards, which are constantly getting misplaced.
Dohner and his 85-year-old nurse, Rose Busby, spend much of the day bickering about lost cards.
"I've worked here 12 years," sighed Edith Moore, 84, the receptionist. "Sometimes it feels like 100."
But Moore's eyes grow wide and her demeanor softens when she talks about the people who come for treatment.
"We have an envelope here, for people who can't pay," she whispers.
She opens her desk drawer to show an envelope, stuffed with dollar bills.
Who puts the money in the envelope?
"A lot of us," she says.
Raised during the Depression on a farm near Vermont, Ill., in the next county over, Dohner was the fifth of seven children. When he was 13 years old, he suffered from severe tonsillitis, which resulted in fevers and seizures. "When I came out of the seizures, Doctor Hamilton would be there," he remembers. "That's how I decided I wanted to be a doctor."
He graduated from Northwestern University medical school in 1953 with the intention of becoming a cardiologist. But Rushville needed a doctor. He moved to the small town in 1955, intending to stay for five years. Those years came and went and, he says, "there wasn't anyone else to take care of the people here."
Dohner decided to stay, but his wife at the time did not. After their divorce, he never remarried, and never had any children. He was close to his siblings and his 11 nieces and nephews. But in many ways, he was wedded to the town.
"He's given up everything to stay here and to take care of people," says Dr. Linda Forestier, 64, the only other local physician, who has practiced in Rushville for four years.
To mark Dohner's 50 years in medicine, the town held a huge celebration a few years ago. At the parade, held in his honor, Dohner waved from a horse-drawn carriage.
Today, the walls of his office are plastered with children's crayon drawings. In his office refrigerator, boxes of temperature-sensitive medication sit next to boxes of chocolate, given to him by patients. A stick of homemade butter, wrapped in cellophane, bears a handwritten note: "4U because you are a good person."
Charging $5 a patient, Dohner doesn't make any money for himself or his practice. He says he supports his work with income from his family farm, and other investments.
Part of the formula, he says, is keeping costs low. He doesn't take health insurance, or do any billing. When patients arrive, there are no forms to fill out. Just tell the doctor what's wrong, and he'll do his best to help. If he can't, he'll send you to someone who can.
For those too sick to make the trip to the office, Dohner still makes house calls.
Though some in his waiting room are poor and have no other place to go, others simply prefer the elderly doctor who has treated some families for generations.
"My kids love him. They won't see anyone else," says Lisa Hill, 39. When her young son came down with asthma, "Dohner had to bribe him with Snickers bars to get him to see a specialist."
"He saved my husband's life," says Sharon Werner, 58, explaining how, after the family had seen other doctors, it was Dohner who diagnosed her husband's appendicitis. "We have good health insurance, but we'd still rather come here."
Moore, the receptionist, locks the door at 5 p.m. But Dohner stays as late as it takes to see every patient.
It is after 8 p.m., on a recent evening, when he finally ushers the last person to the door.
"This is what I've done all my life," he says as he grabs his hat and prepares to head to the hospital, where he typically eats dinner at his desk and checks on a few patients before going home for the evening. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't have any reason to quit."