Dr. Russell Dohner, 86, has been on call for 57 years in Rushville, Ill. (pop. 3,192), working seven days a week, seeing up to 120 patients a day and even making house calls.
To top it off, he charges patients only $5 a visit.
“When I first came here, every doctor in town charged $2,” Dohner says. “I didn’t think about changing the price for 30 years.”
When national publicity about his low fee brought the modest doctor unwanted attention in the 1980s, Dohner began charging $3 for a visit and then $5 about 15 years ago.
By 9 a.m. six days a week, his clinic on the town square begins to fill with 50 or more people, enough to keep his fee low, Dohner says. He accepts Medicare, but not private insurance.
Most patients, like Laura Fry, 41, and her daughter, Kayla, 19, know they’ll get their money’s worth from Dohner, who’s provided medical care to five generations of the Fry family.
“He’s so calm and so gentle,” Kayla says. “I’ve never been afraid to see the doctor.”
When she was younger, Kayla proudly received an “award for bravery” certificate from Dohner and redeemed it for an ice cream cone at Moreland & Devitt Drug Store a few doors away. That sweet tradition continues.
Another country doctor inspired Dohner to enter the medical profession. “When I was a little boy, 5 or 6, I had tonsillitis bad and had seizures and my mother would call Dr. Hamilton,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be just like Dr. Hamilton.’”
After earning a medical degree in 1953 from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, Dohner opened his office. It looks much the same today with a homey mishmash of chairs, an examination room with knotty-pine walls, and a hallway papered with thank-you cards, letters and snapshots of patients. Dohner writes out medical records by hand on index cards, and receptionist Edith Moore, 84, answers an oft-ringing 1950s rotary dial telephone. She jots the day’s receipts in a tablet.
Most of all, Dohner’s devotion to his patients remains unchanged after more than a half-century of doctoring, says nurse Florence Bottorff, 88, who has worked alongside him since 1958.
“He doesn’t turn anyone away,” Bottorff says.
In case someone needs care, Dohner opens the office for an hour on Sunday mornings before attending services at First United Methodist Church, and he makes house calls as needed.
“People are at home and disabled and you need to look after them,” he says matter-of-factly.
Two calls that Dohner has responded to during the 1960s stand out among thousands of medical emergencies, ranging from ruptured appendixes to snake bites. After a ceiling collapsed in a nearby coal mine, he ventured underground and treated two survivors. He also came to the rescue of a boy who fell in a corn bin.
“All I could see was his head,” Dohner recalls. “I said, ‘the only thing you can do is tear down the bin so the corn will rush out.’ The little boy was fine.”
Though the bachelor doctor doesn’t have children, he has delivered more than 3,500 babies and has his hands full keeping them all in good health.
Rick Bartlett, 48, a pharmacist at Moreland & Devitt is a “Dohner baby,” as are his four children. He remains grateful for Dohner’s healing touch when he was a child.
“My older brother fed me a fishing lure with a treble hook that stuck in my cheek and tongue,” he says. “We didn’t go to the emergency room. We went to Dr. Dohner and he cut it out.”
“His patients are his family,” Bartlett adds. “That’s all Dr. Dohner thinks about—that someone might need him. He’s so unselfish.”