When it was time to retire from private practice in Aurora, Ill. two years ago, surgeon Dr. Eugene Balthazar showed his gratitude to the city of 79,000, where he had prospered for a half century, with a unique gift: himself.
With his own savings, Balthazar, now 72, set up a store-front clinic in the decaying downtown district. There, three-and-a-half days a week, he has treated ailments from pinkeye to leprosy—all free.
In the clinic’s crowded waiting room are scores of workers from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and South America who first came to northern Illinois to pick tomatoes or work in the local canneries. Many have settled down, increasing the size of Aurora’s already large Hispanic-American community. The poor and elderly in need of treatment also go to Balthazar’s clinic (the two local hospitals charge a minimum of $10 per visit). Even children who are unable to afford checkups and shots for school get them at the clinic. So far, the facility has logged more than 30,000 patient visits.
“These are wonderful people,” says Balthazar. “God’s children is what they are and we enjoy taking care of them.” His empathy for the indigent can be traced back to his Illinois boyhood. The son of a French-Canadian metal polisher, he was working in a scrapyard when his father decided he should become a doctor. “In my home,” smiles Dr. Balthazar, “we obeyed.” Indeed, Balthazar and his late wife, Dorothy (who died of cancer in 1973), went on to raise four healers of their own: Eugene Jr., 29, a surgical resident; Dorothy, 28, a resident in orthopedic surgery; dentistry student Yvonne, 27; and 25-year-old predental student Renée.
Miraculously, Balthazar, whose Adolphe Menjou mustache complements a wardrobe of appropriate panache, has thus far hewn to his original concept of medical service. “Everything here is free,” he declares, his wife’s wedding ring flashing on his gesticulating hand. “No patient can pay me even if he wants to.” He refuses Medicare and insurance payments because he says they would create too much paperwork. Until recently he also declined any contributions on the grounds that he had undertaken to create and maintain the clinic himself. From the beginning, however, the city charged him only $1 a year rent, and he accepts free supplies from drug companies and local physicians. Nor has Balthazar had to go hungry on the job. Three local banks donate coffee and doughnuts for the doctor, his three-woman staff and volunteers, and he lunches on casseroles and other dishes prepared by patients. Nonetheless, last summer Dr. Balthazar found that he had already spent $30,000 of his own limited resources, and he realized that with rising costs his clinic might founder. That was when he learned that he was not without honor in his own community. He allowed the Aurora Savings & Loan Association to create a fund for the Aurora Free Medical Dispensary last fall. In just over a month townspeople contributed $22,000 to it. Dr. Balthazar had enough to run the clinic for another year.