Small-town Doc has Charged $5 a Visit for 55 Years

By Bob Dotson
|  Monday, Dec 27, 2010  |  Updated 4:45 PM EDT
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Small-town Doc has Charged $5 a Visit for 55 Years

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Charging the price of a fancy cup of coffee, Dr. Russell Dohner has cared for Rushville, an Illinois town of 4,300 people, for more than half a century, delivering 3,500 babies, and never taking a vacation — or even an entire day off.

Rushville, Ill., is the kind of place where backyards have gardens instead of grass, and sunflowers wave in the wind. A tiny town, just 4,300 people, named for a doctor and settled by the men who marched back from the War of 1812. Rushville was built on government land, halfway between St. Louis and Chicago, as a gift to veterans. Those who did not come back got a statue on the courthouse square and were called heroes.

But there is another sort of hero in Rushville today — one the town treasures, and can also touch. Dr. Russell Dohner has been looking after his neighbors for 55 years, charging them about what we pay for a fancy cup of coffee: five bucks a visit. 

“In a mercenary world,” a waiting patient told me, “this place is an oasis.” 

 

Making a difference
Doc Dohner doesn’t believe in tossing things away, and that keeps costs down. The only thing modern in his office is medicine.

Most of his nurses have been with him nearly as long as his furniture. They’re paid well because Doc works around the clock. He will go anywhere, at any time, to help those in need, often arriving before emergency crews. He once saved a small boy from smothering to death in a corncrib, once climbed down into a coal mine to help rescue four men. 

Dohner broke his own back a few years ago and has had a heart attack — the only times he’s ever closed his clinic. He took time off until patients started coming to his house seeking medical care.

He does have help. Doc brought half the Rushville hospital staff into the world, including the woman who runs the place, Lynn Stambaugh. She used to wash dishes at the hospital. Dohner inspired her to go to nursing school.

I asked her why Doc never burned out.

"Well, I think because every day he makes a difference to at least one person, and if you can do that, you can go on.”

The morning we first met, back in 1983, Dohner had been to surgery twice, prepped a broken arm, handled two emergency cases, checked on 50 patients and delivered three babies. It was not yet 10:30.

No days off
He has only one hobby: trees. He’s donated 10,000 of them to this prairie town. Now and then he does slip away to go fishing on a Thursday afternoon, but he’s usually in his tie, and always near a phone.

He has not, in 55 years, had a vacation, not even a full day off. What would he do, if he did take a day off?

“I would like to go to Missouri,” Doc says. 

Missouri is only 58 miles west of Rushville.

“Yes, but I have to take care of my patients first.”

The last time Doc left Illinois was during World War II. He was a military policeman in the Army, guarding President Harry Truman. “I was close enough to touch him,” Doc smiles, “but he wouldn’t have liked that.”

Dr. Dohner was born 85 years ago on a nearby farm, one of seven children. He worked to pay his own way through Northwestern University medical school. 

He had his heart set on being a big-city cardiologist, but decided, “Rushville needed a doctor, so I stayed. It’s the way it’s got to be, if I take care of what comes.” 

Russell Dohner has won dozens of awards for the quality of his practice and was runner-up for Country Doctor of the Year. Every morning before the sun peeks over the water tower, dozens of people are crammed into his waiting room.

 

He takes no appointments. Those who are seriously ill use the back door to get immediate attention; others sit for an hour or more to visit a doctor who knows more about them than some of their families do.

The first baby he delivered now drives her granddaughter 30 miles for an office visit. “When your little girl gets carried to surgery by the doctor instead of one of the nurses, she will learn to trust him, too,” she said.

Doc has no children of his own — unless you count the 3,500 babies he’s delivered. That’s more than the population of Rushville. 

If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, contact:

Dr. Russell Rowland Dohner
103 West Washington Street
Rushville, Illinois 62681
(217) 322-4363

Doctor Dohner does not have e-mail. The best way to contact him is through:

Luan Phillips
Director of Community Relations
Culbertson Memorial Hospital
238 South Congress Street
Rushville, IL  62681
217-322-4321, ext. 269
lphillips@sdcmh.org
cmhospital.com

Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by
clicking here.

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