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Video: Dedicated doc still charges $5 for checkups

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    >>> this morning's american story with bob dodson. it comes from rushville , illinois where people are celebrating 55 reasons to be thankful this holiday season . that's the number of years the doctor has been looking after his neighbors charging what a lot of folks say a poor cup of coffee.

    >> reporter: rish vilushville, illinois is the kind of place where things grow fast, even the squirrels. dr. russell donor has been looking after his neighbors for 55 years. in all that time, he has not taken a vacation, not even a full day off.

    >> well there's somebody on sunday that needs some help too.

    >> reporter: the morning we first met back in 1983 , he had been to surgery twice, prepped a broken arm, handled two emergency cases, checked on 50 patients and delivered three babies.

    >> looks like one of yours, doesn't it?

    >> reporter: it was not yet 10: 30. here's megan thompson today, with her niece, piper.

    >> how old do you think he is?

    >> 35.

    >> reporter: doc was born 85 years ago on a nearby farm. one of seven children. he worked nights to pay his way through northwestern university medical school . had his heart set on being a big city cardiologist, but decided --

    >> i have to take care of my people first.

    >> reporter: everyone pays just $5 to see him.

    >> is that all?

    >> yes.

    >> reporter: 5 bucks. doc doesn't toss away a tool just because it has a few years on it. that keeps costs down.

    >> ever see rotary phones anymore?

    >> reporter: the only thing modern in his practice is his medicine. most of his nurses have been with him longer than his furniture.

    >> reporter: how can you make it on $5 a patient?

    >> millions and millions of patients frequently.

    >> reporter: if they can't come to him, he goes to them. perhaps that's why bill bartlow is still nimble enough to play the organ at 90. his wife margie just got home from the hospital.

    >> you're doing good, just keep it up.

    >> reporter: doc will go anywhere for a house call , sometimes even arriving before emergency services . he once saved a boy that was -- broke his own back and suffered a heart attack a few years ago, took some time off until patients started arriving at his house seeking medical care .

    >> it's probably gastrointerrights.

    >> but he does have help. half the people working in rushville hospital are doc donor babies.

    >> he's been doing this for 55 years.

    >> i think every stay he makes a difference to at least one person.

    >> reporter: susan parks runs his office on weekends and holidays.

    >> she shows up when i show up.

    >> reporter: for free, as does her husband rick who doc saved from a swarm of hornets.

    >> me mows his yard once a week pays it back.

    >> reporter: russell donor was in the army during world war ii the last time he took a day off, but knows exactly what he would defensive he took another.

    >> i would like to go to missouri someday.

    >> reporter: 58 miles away . missouri's not too far from here.

    >> no but it takes some time to do it.

    >> reporter: he also loves trees, doc's donated 10,000 around town. dr. donor has no children of his own, he married only briefly. but he's delivered 3,500 babies, more than rushville 's population.

    >> three, two, one.

    >> reporter: there are no statues to his kind of devotion, just lives.

    >> i can make it all right.

    >> reporter: because the town looks after him. for "today," bob dotson , nbc news with an american story in rushville , illinois .

    >> wow, that's really something. making a difference every day of their life.

    >> $5 a visit.

    >> bless his heart. oh, dear. that's a great story from

TODAY contributor
updated 12/27/2010 7:04:54 AM ET 2010-12-27T12:04:54

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.

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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.” 

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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.

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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

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

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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