September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Just over a year ago, Bill Davis, M.D., a country doctor who still made house calls, was ready to quit doctoring to go teach high school science. Simply put, he says, he’d had it with HMOs—the endless paperwork and the constant questioning of his prescribed treatments. He cared about his patients, and he felt right at home in Winters, Calif., the rural Northern California community where he practiced. But he was frustrated as heck and he just couldn’t take it anymore. “It was like holding a weight,” says Davis, 48. “There’s a point at which it just drops.”

Winters’ roughly 5,000 residents, however, weren’t going to let Doc Davis bail without a fight. Mayor Tom Stone called a town meeting and, reluctantly, the reticent physician attended, expecting criticism. What he got instead was a barrage of testimonials. “Dr. Davis visited my dad every day until he died last year,” said farmer Richard Rubio, 49. “When the doctor told me my father wasn’t going to make it, he cried.” After more tributes, Ernie Gaddini, 58, a farmer still in his work clothes, played the Field of Dreams card: “If we build you an office, will you stay?”

They built it and he stayed. With $50,000 in cash and materials, supplemented by donated services from contractors and electricians, the townsfolk transformed an 800-sq.-ft. former shoe-repair shop into the Winters Healthcare Foundation. Open since last October, it doesn’t accept HMOs, and fees are low—about $30 per visit for those who can afford it. If that’s outside a patient’s budget, Davis, the sole physician, accepts goods in lieu of money, including homemade chicken tamales, deer meat and fresh vegetables. “He’s a modern-day hero,” says Dr. Marie Kuffner, immediate past president of the California Medical Association. “Here’s a doctor who said, ‘My principles mean more to me than being a slave to a system that doesn’t care about patients.’ ” Adds Yolo County Director of Health Betty Hinton: “He just got tired of the managed-care system most physicians are required to live with now. He wanted to practice his way.”

That philosophy is reflected in the foundation’s motto: “By and For the People of Winters.” To that end the WHF provides services not traditionally offered by medical insurance, such as volunteer-administered diabetes screenings at churches, transportation for out-of-town hospital visits, looking in on elderly patients—even cleaning patients’ houses and mowing their lawns. “We are empowering the patients to do something about their healthcare,” says Joe Martinez, 53, a walnut rancher who serves as president of the foundation’s board. “You don’t fill out forms in triplicate here.”

If it is short on bureaucracy, the foundation is also low on cash. It barely covers the monthly overhead of about $4,000, leaving nothing for Davis, who also racked up $95,000 in personal credit-card debt purchasing a computer system for the clinic. “I wouldn’t have done that without some reasonable hope that there was a way of paying it back,” says Davis, a married father of four grown sons who acknowledges that the entire enterprise, though noble, could still fall apart. “I’ve thought about it not working, but I’ve never said it was not a good idea. We’re still in the process of getting there.”

Until then, Davis relies on wife Wendy’s annual salary as chief of ombudsman services for the department of mental health in Sacramento. The couple live on a tight budget. “It’s scary,” says Davis’s mother, Dorothy, 77, a homemaker wed 53 years to William B. Davis, Sr., 76, a turf specialist at the University of California. “But we’re certainly proud of him.”

Growing up in Davis, Calif., with his parents and sister Pam, 51, Bill was curious and methodical. “You’d ask him to clean his room, thinking it would take 20 minutes, and it might take 2 days,” says Dorothy. “If he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it right.”

Three decades ago her son accepted the invitation of 16-year-old Davis Senior High School classmate Wendy Walker to help out at a summer camp. “He had pretty brown eyes and blond hair and great legs,” recalls Wendy, now 47. Smitten, they threw themselves into political causes, protesting the Vietnam War and supporting Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers movement. Says Wendy: “We got together over wanting to serve the world.”

A year after Davis graduated from high school, the couple married. He earned his degree from UC Davis School of Medicine in 1983. When Davis first visited Winters in 1986, he was taken with its quaint charm and, rejecting more lucrative offers, set up a practice, often riding a bicycle to visit patients at home. “He’s like that special best friend from high school you go to when the chips are down,” says Martinez. Ask Victoria Garibay, 63, a recent heart attack victim who suffers from diabetes and hypertension. After treating her in his office, Davis stopped by her home to explain her condition and prognosis to her husband, children and grandchildren. She paid for his services with a promise that her husband will trim the doctor’s ivy. Davis knows it will be hard to keep the WHF up and running, but he also knows that this kind of doctoring has special rewards. “It feels better to do something for somebody who is not able to find first-class medicine,” Davis says, “than dealing with people who can afford to pay anything.”

Nick Charles

Karen Brailsford in Winters

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