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 KUMD.org.

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.

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.

Cristian Newman/Unsplash

  Money was short and you ran out of heating fuel in the middle of winter. I expect those were some bad days. You didn’t tell me about that until after it was passed. A desperate someone looking for something to sell kicked your door in when you weren’t home and made your crumbling house lose some of that precious heat. Visiting your mother in the nursing home must have been warm. Your old television couldn’t have brought much money.  Your car got repossessed.

Lisa Johnson

Do the leaves remember those from last year?In the heat of summer, the bright green shimmers of forever.Then the fall.The bitter cold.They show their true colors, these elders.They remind us of the passage into the next life.The commonest of them persistAnd they speak to me.They tell me I am one of them.

Arne/Ivy Vainio

  I was almost to my hotel and a man was kneeling on the sidewalk pulling a trumpet out of its case. I was well past him and was about to cross the street when he started to play.  Jazz? Blues?

Copyright Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

  You told me you didn’t feel you contributed anything to anyone anymore. My father, your brother, died when I was four years old. I have maybe three or four actual memories of him and some memories that are from stories someone else told me and I took them as my own memories. I didn’t get to see his smile except in old photographs. I didn’t get to hear his voice and I never had the chance to hear the advice he would have passed to me from his parents when he thought I needed to hear those things.

Wisconsin Historical Society

Skip Sandman is one of our spiritual leaders and he spoke for the pipe.

Copyright Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

I have no doubt this sewing machine made face masks over a hundred years ago and my grandmother would have made masks. There was a huge second wave of that pandemic and entire families died in a single day. They didn’t have access to ventilators back then and this machine would have been a life saver. My grandmother saved lives as a young woman and I never knew a thing about it.


Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

George has always told me seeing a doctor dancing would be healing for everyone and I discovered that meant me as much as anyone else.  

Copyright Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

At his 70th birthday party, he took me aside and it was like a little ceremony with just me and him in the corner.

“Arne, you need to write. I know you have at least one book in you and maybe more. The only way you’re going to find out is by writing and I want to write the forward to your first book.
He went on, “I’ve been writing all these years and I’m always looking for the next writer among us, Arne. Telling our stories is important and I want to pass something formally to you right now.
“Believe that what you have to say is important. The commas and the punctuation will take care of themselves. You need to write.’”

Ryan Holloway/Unsplash

Florence and her sister were forcefully taken away from her family when she was a little girl and put into a residential school.  She was driven far away from her family, her braids were cut off and she was forbidden to speak her language.  “I was always told before that that I was a beautiful little girl inside and once I was taken away I was told I was stupid and ugly. When I got older I fell in with the wrong lifestyle because I couldn’t go back home and I just wanted someone, anyone to accept me.”

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