Skip to main content

Walking into Medicine: An Ojibwe Doctor’s Path to Health Care, Filmmaking and Writing

  • Author:
  • Updated:

What path leads a poor kid growing up in a household with six siblings and no indoor plumbing ultimately into medical school?

For Dr. Arne Vainio, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation, his life journey took a substantial turn at a literal curve in the road.

Vainio was visiting a body shop in Virginia, Minnesota, when a pick-up truck and a semi-truck collided on a nearby curve on the highway. He and others rushed to the scene, where the woman in the pick-up was badly hurt.

“I held her head the whole time until the ambulance was there,” Vainio recalled. By keeping her steady, “I saved her life. I knew it. That was a real powerful experience. If you save someone’s life, it defines who you are.”

He liked the work he had then as a foreman at a construction company, operating bulldozers and other heavy equipment. “It was pretty cool,” he said, “but it didn’t change anything.”

That highway accident changed Vainio and what he wanted to do. Not long after, he applied to become a paramedic with the Virginia Fire Department. He got the training and the job, which involved driving an ambulance.

“We were supposed to take turns driving the ambulance or being in the back (with injured people). In three years, I drove the ambulance one time.”

It became obvious that healing should become more of his life, but it took awhile for the idea of medical school to emerge. Doctors, after all, did not loom large in his childhood.

“The only time we saw a doctor was if my brother put a lump on my head – stitches.”

Friends and mentors urged him to go into medicine. “Everybody else seemed to know what the next step was, and I didn’t.”

An incident transporting a severely diabetic patient convinced him that health care needed more American Indians. Vainio was bringing her into the emergency room – her blood sugar was too high to read – and heard a hospital staff member mumbling an insult. “Even with me pushing the cot, he said, ‘It’s just a goddamn drunk Indian woman.’”

Seeking loans and scholarships and crashing in other people’s houses to cut expenses, he went to the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, graduating in 1994. “All I wanted to do was Indian Health. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

When it came time for his residency, he got that chance. In Washington state, the Seattle Indian Health Board was looking for “native medical students who were strong,” Vainio said. However, he hesitated to stray so far from home.

On a visit to the clinic in March, he started to be swayed, he joked. “It was like 20 or 30 below in Minnesota and it was 47 (above zero) in Seattle. There were vines, there was green stuff growing.”

The small clinic served mainly American Indians and homeless people. He was introduced to staff, including Dr. Peter Talbot, who would become a mentor, and to spiritual advisor Karl Anquoe. Anquoe, of Kiowa and Nez Perce ancestry, explained that in his tradition, saying something three times with sincerity made it happen. After describing this, he said to Vainio: “We need you out here.”

Later, at dinner, as Anquoe passed the salt to him, Vainio said the elder touched his hand and said, “We need you out here.” Then, once again, before he boarded the plane for home, came, “We need you out here.”

Vainio was convinced. Back home, though, he made a commitment to return. “You promise me you’ll come back here,” demanded Ruth Meyers, director of the American Indian Programs at his medical school. He promised.

And so it was that after three years in Seattle, where he essentially grew up as a medical doctor, Vainio returned to work on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

In describing his life path, Vainio frequently paves it with names of those who made his life possible. “Find somebody who does what you want to do, they will always help you,” he advises young people. “People don’t have to go it alone, nobody does.”

He credits Dr. Conrad Firling and his physiology professor, Dr. Edwin Haller, for directing him through medical school and a friend, Jay Newcomb, for keeping him on task and offering a place to stay.

Among his many mentors, Vainio definitely includes his wife, Ivy, whose varied ethnic roots include Grand Portage Ojibwe. They met in college biology class. Ivy earned a degree in history and is now a multicultural student service specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Superior, not far from Cloquet.

It was Ivy who became producer on a documentary involving Arne that was suggested by filmmaker Lorraine Norrgard, a three-year project that culminated in 2009 with “Walking into the Unknown, Dibi Biindige’oseyaan.”

The film, directed by Nate Maydole, follows Arne through diabetes and cholesterol screening, a prostate cancer exam and a colonoscopy. It deals with those health issues, plus with stroke, suicide and alcoholism. More than 200 public television stations have shown the 65-minute film, which has been distributed among all Indian Health Service diabetes prevention programs. During filming, Vainio was diagnosed as “pre-diabetic” and attended a prevention program.

The strength of the film is highlighting subjects rarely discussed in lay terms and through a personal perspective. It bluntly shows Vainio’s tests, removing the fear and mystery behind the procedures. In each section, his physician and colleague at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic, Dr. David Jorde, describes clearly each procedure and issue. Community members also give testimonials about the loss of family members because of heart disease, diabetes and suicide.

Vainio said making the film forced him to do these tests that he, like many of his patients, had avoided. He wanted to do them for Ivy and their son, Jacob. “It wasn’t just me and the motorcycle anymore,” he said. “I’m a husband; I’m a father.”

The film reveals his own father’s suicide and his mother’s death because of diabetes-related problems. While involving mostly American Indians, the film is for all races and for young and old, Ivy Vainio said. After one showing, an 8-year-old girl in the audience asked this question: “Were you afraid to do all that?”

“I was afraid,” Arne Vainio said later. “It was pretty evident in the film.”

“Did you get an Oscar for that?” he said some friends teased him, but “I wasn’t acting. … I wanted something that’s not stereotyped, like the ‘wise old Indian,’ but real stuff.”

Since the film’s release, many things have happened for the Vainio family. The documentary earned an Emmy nomination and the Vainios have attended showings that include a gathering of 1,000 physicians at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to screenings as far flung as Finland, which gave Vainio his first chance to explore that side of his heritage.

In Finland, Ivy Vainio said, “Everybody connected to the film.” Arne was also told “welcome home” by people there.

Recently one of Arne Vainio’s essays – “Mashkikiwinini: Thanking Sylvester for His Unconditional Smile” – was included in newly released book, The Country Doctor Revisited: A Twenty-First Century Reader edited by Therese Zink for The Kent State University Press. The essay honors what he learned from a terminal cancer patient.

“I wanted to write even when I was young,” said Vainio, who has a regular column in News From Indian Country.

What he didn’t want or ever expect to be was a role model. He just didn’t measure up, he’d tell people when they labeled him a “role model” as he went to college, to medical school, to his residency and now as a physician.

When he visited his son’s school to do “mad science experiments” – which often involved explosions, Vainio chuckled – he did think it was good for the kids to be “seeing a Native American doctor doing science.”

But he didn’t think of himself as the role model until a grocery-store encounter with a child he knew from the clinic changed his mind. The small boy whipped around an aisle and almost ran into him. His eyes grew wide and he scurried back and whispered loudly in an excited voice, “Mom! It’s Dr. Vainio!”

If this child saw him not as just “Arne” but as a doctor – a role model perhaps – then he’d better live up to the expectations, Vainio decided. Though deep inside, he admitted, “I still consider myself a heavy equipment operator who went to medical school.”