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The ‘$5 doctor’ practices medicine from bygone era

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(AP)
Dr. Russell Dohner right talks with nurse Rose Busby about a patient’s prescription in Rushville. In an era of rising health care costs, the 87-year-old doctor only charges patients $5 per office visit and doesn’t take insurance, saying it isn’t worth the bother.

RUSHVILLE (AP) – Patients line up early outside his office just off the town square, waiting quietly for the doctor to arrive, as he has done for nearly 60 years.

Dr. Russell Dohner is, after all, a man of routine, a steady force to be counted on in uncertain times.

Wearing the fedora that has become his trademark, he walks in just before 10 a.m., after rising early to make rounds at the local hospital. There are no appointments. He takes his patients in the order they sign in – first come, first-served. His office has no fax machines or computers. Medical records are kept on handwritten index cards, stuffed into row upon row of filing cabinets.

The only thing that has changed, really – other than the quickness of the doctor’s step or the color of his thinning hair – is his fee. When Dohner started practicing medicine in Rushville in 1955, he charged the going rate around town for an office visit: $2.

Now it is $5.

This in an era when the cost of health care has steadily risen, when those who don’t have medical insurance often forgo seeing a doctor. But not Dohner’s patients. He doesn’t even accept medical insurance – says it’s not worth the bother.

“I always just wanted to be a doctor to help people with their medical problems and that’s all it’s for,” the 87-year-old family physician says. “It was never intended to make a lot of money.”

Being a doctor, helping and providing a service – that has been his goal since he was a boy.

One of seven children, Dohner grew up on a farm just north of Rushville, outside the little town of Vermont. His father had hoped he’d take up farming, too. But young Dohner had other ideas, inspired by the town doctor who’d treated him when he had seizures as a child.

“I remember waking up and seeing the doctor there and thinking, ‘that is what I want to do,’” he says.

After serving in the Army in World War II, Dohner went to Western Illinois University, paying for his education with funds provided by the GI bill. In the early 1950s, he attended Northwestern University’s medical school. He had his sights set on becoming a cardiologist and thought about staying in the big city. But when a doctor in Rushville asked him to put off his heart specialist studies to practice medicine back at home, he agreed to do so, at least for a little while.

Then that doctor left town.

“So I couldn’t very well leave,” Dohner says. “That’s just the way it worked out.”

It was a sacrifice, yes. His young wife didn’t want to stay in such a small town, he says, and so their marriage ended. He never remarried and instead dedicated his life to his work, only leaving this small central Illinois town for medical conferences over the years, never taking a true vacation.

Even when the medical profession changed around him, he was always on call, ready to drop everything for a patient.

Most of his income comes from the farm that his family still owns and that is now run by a nephew. So, although he never became a farmer, the farming life made it possible for this country doctor to maintain his practice, his way.

And he intends to keep it going as long as he possibly can.

“As long as I can make it up here, I’ll help if I can,” says Dohner, who has no plan to retire.

Medical colleagues keep a watchful, caring eye on him.

He notes that his mother lived into her mid-90s. “I guess I don’t know anything else to do,” he says.

During a visit to Culbertson Memorial Hospital, he stops to see Virginia Redshaw Wheelhouse, a 97-year-old patient. Her eyes open when she hears his voice. The doctor holds her hand and pats her shoulder.

Afterward, stammering but determined to get the words out, she says, “I pray he lives to be 99,” as her daughter-in-law, Cathy Redshaw, nods.

“There’s no words to describe what he does for people and the effect he has on people,” says Cindy Kunkel, a registered nurse at the hospital, where Dohner spends many evenings on “second rounds,” as she calls them.

She recalls working the night shift and seeing him pull into the hospital drive, often with a patient in his car.

“He may have his slippers on, but he would have his hat and his suit on,” Kunkel says, smiling. “And he would bring a patient in that needed to be put to bed and taken care of.”

Stephanie LeMaster, who grew up in Rushville, remembers interviewing Dohner for a school report when she was in fourth grade. Before then, she’d planned on being a nurse, like her mom and grandmother before her. But that interview changed everything, she says.

Dohner became a role model – and now she is a first-year medical student at Southern Illinois University.

“They tell me I should be the next Dr. Dohner, but I’m not sure I can live up to him,” LeMaster says. “He’s the only one like him.”

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Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/irvineap

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