Mad Scientist: Ojibwe Doctor Named Physician of the Year
Heck, he never took it for granted that he’d live long enough to get through high school, let alone finish medical school, marry the love of his life, raise a son and become a family-practice physician at the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe’s Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic in northern Minnesota.
The Mille Lacs Ojibwe/Finnish doctor certainly didn’t expect to be honored as this year’s Physician of the Year by the Association of American Indian Physicians at its annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The AAIP honor given at the 46th annual conference Friday, July 28, is just the latest of multiple awards he’s received, including one of four Minnesota 2016 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero awards, “in recognition of the significant impact they have had on the state of Minnesota and its communities” and the 2008 Early Distinguished Career Award given to one physician each year from the University of Minnesota Medical School Alumni.
Yet when this unsung hero looks back on his life, he names his heroes—those who saved him from a likely downward spiral in a childhood rendered by a suicide and family addictions.
“I tell everybody that I got to this point like a pinball,” Vainio said, sipping coffee in a downtown Duluth restaurant. “And if it wouldn’t have been for a double handful of people, some of them doing big things, some of them doing small things…”
A pause completes his sentence, and the disturbing potentials wordlessly linger.
Whatever warning bells were sounded by pinball turns in Vainio’s life, the bounces ultimately landed him in good place, with his inspiring wife, Ivy, musically talented son, Jacob, and a career of service to others.
He knows, though, that bad can certainly get worse. He’s reminded of that each time he sees his own name on a headstone on the grave of his father—Arne Vainio.
“My father committed suicide when I was 4. That just derailed my entire family forever,” he begins. “We had a bar called the Good Luck Tavern, of all things, in Sturgeon, Minnesota, and my mom, she tried to keep it open. She had four kids, she was pregnant with my sister at the time, and there’s no way she could keep it going.
“If that wasn’t enough, it was a bar, and everybody drank, and my mom was drinking and my 6-year-old sister was in charge of us. My 6-year-old sister who has since drank herself to death. And so we were in a bar, alone, and did what any sensible kids would do. We were playing with matches, and we burned our house to the ground.”
A few of his heroes he’s never met—the authors who revealed other ways, other worlds. “When I was a kid, I used to read all the time, and what I read was science fiction—Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and just anything I could get my hands on. I always knew there was a different world out there, even if it was a ‘different world.’”
“On a rainy day, I would just curl up in our ramshackle old house that leaked everywhere. We had plastic stapled to the ceiling to direct the water into buckets instead of all over the place. I could sit with that water running into those buckets, and I could just read. Some of my friends thought that was the craziest thing. If I’m not learning how to fix a transmission, what’s the sense in that?”
Actually, all things mechanical did interest him, and still do (as his rat-rod pickup tells you). He was pretty sure his future would be in a big rig.
“The truck drivers would come into the tavern, and they had those big wallets with the chain… that was all I ever aspired to.”
With his natural curiosity in science, one might anticipate higher education and advanced degrees, but because he was a Native teen, his high school counselor pigeonholed him for other careers.
“He said, ‘You aren’t college material; you should think about tech school. And I believed him, and why would I not believe him? People need to be careful what they say. All of us have that ability to either do it right or do it wrong.”
Luckily that’s when he met another hero—Leonard Ojala, a professor in secondary education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “He and his wife took me to UMD, just me, drove me down on a Tuesday and said, ‘You could come here.’ It was huge, the buildings and the libraries and all the books.”
Ojala was persuasive, but something about the campus clinched the idea, Vainio joked. “The big reason I went there was it had running water, hot running water and electricity. I tell people, even now, when the hot water comes on and runs out of the shower, it’s magic. It’s so cool.”
Other heroes waited there for him.
“I first saw Arne with his mother, Mabel, when they came to orientation and were standing in line to check in,” recalled Jay Newcomb. “I was the advocate for American Indian students. I could immediately see how kind and respectful he was to Mabel, unlike most first-year college students. I could also see how lost he looked—fresh from the woods of northern Minnesota to the university in the big city of Duluth.”
Vainio remembers Newcomb, too.
“I was always afraid to ask questions because it seemed like everyone else knew what was going on,” Vainio said. “Not only did I not want to look ignorant, I didn’t want my family to look ignorant or my people to look ignorant. So I didn’t ask. … Jay Newcomb was watching me, and he recognized me; I’m sure he saw a lot of lost Indian kids over the years.”
Newcomb asked where Vainio was staying. “I didn’t think that far ahead,” Vainio admitted. “And Jay said, ‘Why don’t you stay with us for a couple of weeks until you get settled in?’ I stayed with them for two and a half years. Who does that? I mean, who does that for people, you know?”
Jay and his wife, MaryB, saw a generous future for the young student, determined to (and who eventually did) buy his mother a home. “We saw in Arne a couple of qualities—kindheartedness and resilience,” MaryB Newcomb said. “From the beginning, Arne showed great kindness and the desire to provide safety and support for others.”
“He became a part of our family,” added Jay Newcomb. “Our kids still call him Uncle Arne.”
He was a good soul, but not a good student—not that first time, at least.
“My first semester, I chose a calculus class, an upper-level chemistry class, a physics class. I wanted everybody to see I was a genius, but I never had anything leading up to it. … So on day one, I was lost, totally lost. … After two quarters of college, my GPA was 0.00 ’cause I did the same thing the second quarter. I picked the same classes.”
Vainio pinballed in and out of UMD. He tended bar, operated heavy equipment—“I still have a bobcat, and I move my own dirt and my own trees and my own snow and all that stuff”—and took emergency medical technician (EMT) training.
His bounce to EMT came after the loss of someone he admired—an old farmer named Edwin Peterson. “He made moonshine, and we fished together. One day there were people with him and he was feeding his pigs. He went down. Somebody had to run a quarter of a mile to call 20 miles away to the volunteer ambulance service. … And he died, of course. He may have died anyway, but I never wanted to be the person that just stood there.”
As an EMT, Vainio could do more than just stand there. “I took this 110-hour EMT course and that was the first time ever that I just saw people who were on fire for something.”
After the course, he went back to work sanding cars … until a pulp truck struck a pickup near the body shop. He didn’t have to just stand there. “This woman was in there, and I saved her life before the ambulance got there. And she knew it, and I knew it.”
As the paramedics took her away, Vaino remembered, “She whispered, ‘Thank you.’ If you save a life just one time, it defines you.”
He joined up for paramedic training, topping the class and joining the ambulance service on the Virginia, Minnesota, Fire Department. After three years, his paramedics teacher and partner, Mark Gujer, had a great idea: They should go to medical school. “We quit the best job I ever had to go chasing rainbows,” Vainio mused.
This time around, a degree was a rainbow that Vainio could catch. “He was the number one student in all of his classes when he went back,” prompted wife Ivy, the Multicultural Student Services coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
“Mark and I just killed the (grading) curve because we were together all the time,” Vainio agreed. “Two o’clock in the morning, and we’d be in the lab.”
After getting accepted into the UMD Medical School, he just had one goal. “All I ever wanted to do was Indian health.”
Later, Vainio was invited to interview at the Seattle Indian Health Board, where he would be the first resident chosen for the program.
In the middle of a Minnesota winter, Seattle sounded … warm. The day he got the call, the Twin Cities were 37 degrees below zero; Seattle was 47 degrees on the right side of zero. “I’d never been anywhere, just a hick from in the woods, totally unsophisticated. And I got to this huge beautiful city right on Puget Sound. It was just gorgeous.”
One meeting was breakfast in the Seattle Space Needle. There he meet another hero, Karl Anquoe, a Kiowa/Nez Perce elder. “He had a real soft handshake and didn’t look me in the eye, which is very traditional, and he said, ‘My people have this saying, this tradition: If you say something three times, then it has to come true … We need you out here.’”
Two more times before parting that morning, Anquoe would say, “We need you out here.”
Vainio was torn. His mother was about to undergo a kidney transplant in Minnesota, but he felt his fate was in Seattle. “I loved the health board, I loved the mission … and Karl said it three times.”
With his mother’s blessing, he spent three years on the West Coast. Ivy, whom he met in college, moved out to be with him after a year. “She just one day quit her job and got on a plane and flew to Seattle!” They married on a trip to Las Vegas, joined by their families.
“When we were leaving the (Las Vegas) airport, that’s actually the last time I saw my mom. … She died the night I graduated from residency.”
He loved Seattle, but his commitment to return to Minnesota was strong—bound with a promise to yet another hero, Ruth Meyers, Grand Portage Ojibwe, and director of the American Indian Programs at his medical school.
“She held everyone’s feet to the fire when we came to school, and she made me promise that I’d come back and work for my people, for Ojibwe people. I came to Fond du Lac, and I’ve been working there ever since. We had a son 13 months after my mom died.”
And so began his giving back. He had his work as a family practice physician, but also he signed up for a documentary about his rocky early path talking about suicide and addiction and also showing him undergoing health checks that Native men often forgo—colon, prostate and diabetes tests. “Walking into the Unknown” was nominated for an Emmy award. It also has linked him worldwide to people in need, like a man in England who had been considering suicide and whom Vainio now considers a long-distance friend. He’s also featured on the We Are Healers website.
To interest Native and other kids in science—the opposite of what his high school counselor did for him—he developed his “Mad Science” programs.
He makes liquid nitrogen ice cream and traps fog in large bubbles. “One of the local welding supply places doesn’t even charge me anymore for the liquid nitrogen and the dry ice because they know what I’m going to do with it.”
He’s taken his science tricks on the road, including to the Nagaajiwanaang Language Camp, an annual Ojibwe language immersion weekend started by yet another of his heroes, the late author Dr. Jim Northrupand his wife, Pat Northrup. Among the items buried with Northrup was an all-purpose tool that Vainio gave him—an honor that he holds dear.
The list of Vainio’s activities grows longer still. He does a segment on the local PBS “Native Report” about health. He writes a column for News from Indian Country. He recently joined four other men for the “Real Men Wear Pink” fundraising project—and even dyed his hair pink—during which “Team Vainio” raised $8,196.53 for breast cancer research.
His generosity attracted the attention of Michelle Lee, former anchor of the Duluth’s KBJR NBC news staff. Featuring Vainio on a “Making a Difference” segment inspired Lee to do something extra. She nominated him for the Unsung Hero award.
“I have met many caring adults (and children) who work hard to make a difference in our community during my career as a storyteller,” Lee said. “Many have done so without anticipation of awards or rewards for doing what they do. Arne is one of them, an unsung hero, and I am honored to call him my friend.”
When he got the call that he’d been chosen, Vainio was “totally blindsided.” He joined four others who were honored last year. “Everybody in that room was dedicated to the same thing,” he said, “dedicated to the betterment of everybody.” There was a $10,000 award with the honor, and true to his commitment, Vainio divide half among his fellow Real Men Wear Pink participants and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and the remainder he donated to the American Indian Cancer Foundation.
Looking back, Vainio recalls all the everyday heroes who made his pinball bounces good ones. It could have gone so many other ways. He hopes he can inspire others as he’s been inspired.
“I’ve been given this place and this opportunity and this gift to be able to point out to people that if I can do something, anybody can do it. … Barring reincarnation, you get one shot at it, one single shot. And, you know, you’ve got to make it count.”