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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Tribute to Dr. Russell Dohner

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-12-18

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, many times in life we are in a doctor's office, and many times in life it is a tense, worrisome moment when we are waiting for that doctor to make a diagnosis or to tell us what we need to know about ourselves or someone we love. There are great doctors, and we hope that we are in the room with one at that moment. There are great doctors who are extraordinary surgeons and great researchers, but there are also great doctors who are caring, healing professionals who are there when we need them the most.

    I wish to tell a brief story about one of them from my home State of Illinois, an exceptional man. Dr. Russell Dohner is a family doctor who retired quietly in October at the age of 88. He had been a practicing family practitioner in Rushville, IL, a small farming community in central Illinois, for 58 years. Dr. Dohner is the only doctor many families in Rushville have ever known, but the longevity of his career is only one small reason they love him.

    For many families in Rushville and the neighboring towns, Dr. Dohner was a one-man solution to the problem of unaffordable health care. When he started practicing medicine in 1955, he charged the going rate around town for an office visit: $2. In 1970, with an apology, he had to raise his fee. His fee for an office visit was raised to $5, and that is where it stayed for 43 years. If families couldn't pay, Dr. Dohner would quietly signal to his office manager: No charge this time. He never, ever accepted medical insurance payments--said it wasn't worth the bother.

    In 58 years as Rushville's family doctor, Dr. Dohner never--never-- took a vacation. He worked 7 days a week. He started each day at the 25-bed hospital, Culbertson Memorial, where he checked on every single patient at the hospital.

    At 10 a.m. he was in his office--a red brick storefront on the town square--to see his patients. There were no appointments. Dr. Dohner saw people in the order they arrived. Years back, he used to see 50 patients a day. His rule was if you were in his office by 5 p.m., he would see you, even if it meant working late into the night. The local pharmacy down the block stayed open until Dr. Dohner called to say he had seen his last patient.

    But that wasn't the end of Dr. Dohner's day. After he saw his last patient in the office, he headed back to his hospital. That was his home away from home, as he called it. He ate dinner and went back to the hospital to check on his patients.

    He made house calls for patients who were too sick or frail to get to his office. He visited his patients in nursing homes.

    He took off a half day each week, Thursday afternoon. First he went to the local Rotary lunch and then, back in the day, he might even consider going fishing. The only time anyone in Rushville can remember Dr. Dohner leaving town was for a medical conference.

    A few years back he had quadruple bypass surgery himself. The day he [[Page S8972]] came home from the hospital, he went to work for a few hours.

    Garry Moreland is a co-owner of the pharmacy down the street from Dr. Dohner, and he said: ``Healing is more than a dedication or a commitment, it's a calling.'' Tim Ward, director of the foundation for Culbertson Memorial Hospital, said of Dr. Russell Dohner: ``He's the closest thing we have to a saint.'' Dr. Dohner's staff was just as dedicated as he was. His sister Clarice, who died in April, helped him set up his practice in 1955. She helped him buy his first car so he could make house calls and she managed his office for more than 40 years.

    Edith Moore, his office assistant, died last July at the age of 85, working right up to the day of her death.

    Rose Busby, one of Dr. Dohner's two nurses, retired about a year ago in her late eighties.

    Nurse Florence Bottorff worked for Dr. Dohner for 50 years until he closed his office. She finally quit her nursing career at age 90.

    Russell Dohner grew up on a farm just north of Rushville, outside the little town of Vermont, IL. He says he inherited his work ethic from his parents, who taught their seven kids the importance of working hard and taking care of others.

    He was inspired to become a doctor by the town doctor who treated him for seizures when he was a child. After he served in the Army in World War II, he went to Western Illinois University on the GI bill and then, in the early 1950s, Northwestern University in Chicago, where he went to medical school.

    He thought he was going to stay in Chicago and be a cardiologist. Instead, he became the heart of a small town. The long-time family doctor in Rushville was retiring and persuaded the newly minted Dr. Dohner to come home for just a year or two to fill the void. Well, the years stretched into decades and Doc Dohner found he just couldn't leave. There was always somebody who needed a helping hand.

    The decision to stay in a small town cost him his marriage, but that was all right. Dr. Dohner said his patients were his family.

    Similar to George Bailey in ``It's a Wonderful Life,'' it seems Dr. Dohner has touched and enriched the lives of almost everyone in this small town. He estimates he has delivered 3,500 babies, more than the entire current population of the city of Rushville. Among those he brought into the world are Rushville's mayor and half of the staff at the local hospital. He once climbed down into a coal mine to help rescue four men.

    Lynn Stambaugh is the CEO at Culbertson Memorial Hospital. Her younger sister suffered seizures as a baby. She remembers Doc Dohner coming to their house and sitting beside her sister's crib all night long to make sure she was going to be OK.

    Carolyn Ambrosius recalled for a local reporter that her mom became pregnant at the age of 41, and a doctor in Springfield told her that either she was going to survive or the baby would survive but not both of them. She went home to Rushville in tears, and then she met with Doc Dohner. She remembers the Doc told her mother: God's going to take care of us, and I am going to help. Doc Dohner came to the house every day to check on Carolyn's mom and often stayed to have dinner with the family. Today, Carolyn Ambrosius's baby brother is a healthy middle- aged man.

    Family doctors such as Doc Dohner are a disappearing breed. Only 2 percent of all medical students in a recent study expressed interest in practicing primary care as a general internist. Most medical students choose a more lucrative specialty field. In the United States, we are now short approximately 9,000 primary care doctors. The situation is not getting any better. In the next 15 years we are going to face a shortage of more than 65,000 primary care doctors.

    Stephanie LeMaster is one of that special 2 percent, though. Stephanie grew up in Rushville. As a little girl, she wanted to be a nurse like her mom and her grandmother. At her mother's suggestion, she interviewed Doc Dohner for a fourth grade--fourth grade--school project. Listening to him talk about his love of doctoring, she changed her plans. Stephanie LeMaster is now a second-year medical student at Southern Illinois University. She says: They tell me I should be the next Dr. Dohner, but I'm not sure I can live up to him. He's the only one like him.

    Dr. Dohner has been recognized by State and national organizations as one of the best country doctors in America. He has been profiled in People magazine, featured on the ``Today Show,'' and he was the grand marshal for the Illinois State Fair parade this year. In September, the town of Rushville unveiled a bronze statue of Dr. Dohner in the town's Central Park. It is about 200 feet from his old office. The statue depicts Dr. Donor seated on a park bench with a child listening to his heart through a stethoscope.

    Besides doctoring and a little bit of fishing and the Rotary Club meeting, Doc Dohner also loves trees. Rushville mayor Curt Lunt estimates the doctor has donated thousands of trees to the town over the years.

    It has been said you have to have faith in the future to plant a tree. The trees of Rushville symbolize not just Doc Dohner's faith in the future but also his love for that community that became his family.

    Retirement is taking some adjustment for Doc Dohner. The last time he took a full day off he was in the Army in World War II. He refused to let the folks of Rushville hold any kind of retirement reception for him or run a story about him in the local newspaper. He said plenty of people retire every day and nobody makes any fuss over it. But few people touch a town as deeply as Dr. Dohner--Dr. Russell Dohner. He touched Rushville and the other small farm towns around it in such an amazing way.

    You can be sure this holiday season, as they have for so many years, there are many people who count among their blessings that great Dr. Dohner, who served Rushville, IL, and America for so many decades.


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