In the Spirit of Medicine

"In the Spirit of Medicine" is a new feature on Northland Morning.

Dr. Arne Vainio is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice doctor on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Cloquet.

His essays on life, work, medicine and spirit are published in "News From Indian Country," and you can find the link to his stories and more on our website at

In the Spirit of Medicine on KUMD is made possible by University of Minnesota Medical School- Duluth CampusAmpers, and the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

©Ivy Vainio

Someone in recovery gave him a vest and a bustle to wear and he started dancing as a traditional dancer at powwows. “It took me a long time to remember some of the things those old people tried to tell me and finding my traditions again saved me.” George has been a traditional dancer since then and his dance outfit was given to him over time by friends and sometimes by dancers who were too old to keep dancing and wanted their regalia to stay in the powwow circle. “When I dance, every step is a prayer for healing for all Indian people.”

Billy Pasco/Unsplash

She took both of my hands in hers and looked straight into my eyes. I could see the strength and resolve of many hard years looking back at me.

“"Young man, Dr. Vainio. You have been so kind to me and I know you just want to help, but I have everything I need. I'’m going to a better place, so don'’t you worry about me."”

I had to leave the room at that point and went out to the top of the parking ramp. I looked out over the new day with the sun sparkling on the Puget Sound and the Olympic mountain range in the background. The birds were singing and the sky was a rare and brilliant blue.

How could something so terrible be happening on such a perfect day? Every time I tried to turn around and go back into the hospital, I started to cry. Not silently, but sobs that wracked me so hard I had to hold myself up by leaning against a concrete pillar. 

Susan Boorsma. Used with permission.

There are maybe a double handful of people I really credit with my becoming a doctor. Walt Boorsma is one of them. I first met him when I was about 18 and unemployed. He was desperately looking for someone to do some manual labor on a construction job for a few weeks and he found me in a bar. I was drunk, barefoot, disrespectful, and shooting pool, but he didn't really have any other choice on short notice. At age 18, I was looking for my way in the world, but didn't actually know I was lost.

Andrew Michael Nathan [via Flickr]

"Dr. Vainio, I'm so glad you were there," she said.

It is often during critical events in healthcare that medical students learn from their mentors.

Russ Allison Loar/Flickr

"I deserve to die alone, Dr. Vainio. I was never any kind of father and I stopped at the bar on my way home every time I got paid. I never took him to a park or swimming or to a fair. I wasn’t any better husband than I was a father. I told my wife she was the cause of my drinking. Maybe I was wrong,” he smiled grimly, “they’ve been gone for over thirty years.”

©Lisa Johnson

“I don’t want you to get the impression we’re just putting you on a medicine to hide your problems. Having depression is more common than you know. Continuing to see the counselor is important. These medicines are safe and really have minimal side effects. They don’t make you look at the world through rose colored glasses and needing them is not a character flaw and taking them is not a sign of weakness. They are not addicting. These are a tool, just like a calculator or a pencil or a shovel. These are a tool to help you feel better and get some successes behind you."


  I think back to a year ago. There was an entire household with multiple generations living together and they were too sick to come to the clinic for COVID-19 testing. Three of our nurses selflessly volunteered to go to them. They put on personal protective equipment and went in and
tested everyone there. That single act of love and dedication will always define medicine for me.

Sherri Monroe. Used with permission.

  He has finally been able to talk about his seizures and has talked to a group of pharmacy students and talked to a group at the college. “It’s like I finally came out of the closet and I can finally talk about my seizures without being ashamed.”  He welcomes the chance to help others with seizures and knows he has a lot to offer for those needing support and first hand information about epilepsy.

Jonathan van Smit/Flickr

  She was 94 pounds and 28 years old, but you couldn’t tell her age by looking at her. She had the rotting teeth that come with using meth. But mostly, her drug of choice was heroin. Her blond hair was greasy, thin, graying and matted flat against her head. Her face was almost skeletal and she had dark circles under her eyes. Her eyes seemed big because of the loss of fat around them and they almost protruded from her eye sockets. All of her ribs were easily visible and I could actually see her heart beating against her bony chest.

Noah Silliman/Unsplash

  There were four students working with the body we were studying and we didn’t know anything about him as a person. The medical school was very explicit that we were to carry ourselves with the utmost respect when we were in the lab with the body and we were to respect this gift that was given to us. This almost didn’t need to be said, but I’m glad it was. Very few people get the opportunity to study a body in detail and learn the anatomy as they learn the organ systems. There is no book, no video, no plastic model that can give the same experience. This is the way doctors have been learning medicine since the beginning.

Hakan Nural/Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for almost a year. In that year businesses have closed and people have lost jobs. Wearing masks and keeping social distance have caused deep divisions among us. 

  There are scare stories and myths on social media and other places about the vaccines and many people believe these myths. Fear has always been a powerful tool and has long been used to cause division. Fear is being used now and it isn't always easy to know what to believe.

Arne/Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

That means we need to continue to wear masks, keep our social distance, wash our hands frequently, avoid public gatherings and sanitize frequently touched surfaces.

Is this a sacrifice?

Not compared to losing an elder. Ivy and I go to her grandmother’s house and we stand outside the window and we wave and we can talk on the phone. I can see the sadness and longing in Ivy’s eyes and in her grandmother’s. I can see the distance that pane of glass puts between them.

Copyright Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

  The cemetery is far from city lights and is surrounded by tall pine trees.  We are close to the same latitude as Finland and my grandmother would have seen the same winter constellations as a little girl in her homeland. 

We walk carefully so we don’t disturb the snow and we reverently place the candles on each grave.

  In the Spirit of Medicine features the essays of Dr. Arne Vainio, an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice doctor on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Cloquet. His essays on life, work, medicine and spirit are published in "News From Indian Country," and you can find the link to this story here.

Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

She was looking down into one of the barrels and once she started talking, the words came out and it was like she couldn’t stop. She was sobbing and dipping a watering can into the barrel and she told me about all the things that were going on around the time of my father’s death and all the fears she had for him and how she never talked with him about suicide because she was afraid she would plant that idea in his head and how she blamed herself for his death. We hugged for a long time after she finished telling me and her body shook with her sobs and I could tell she had that bottled up for years and years.