What I’ve been doing isn’t enough

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

I haven’t been to an Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP) conference since they had one in Minneapolis eight years ago. This year the conference was held on the Tulalip reservation just north of Seattle, Washington. I did my residency in Seattle and I’d been looking forward to going back for some time and I was planning on taking an elder with me. All of us as physicians would benefit from having an elder at the conference, the students would benefit from having an elder there and the elder would go back to his community after seeing hundreds of Native American physicians in one place with the betterment of Indian health as the focus. I don’t think any of us would ever be the same.

That part didn’t work out and George had some other issues that came up at the last minute and he wasn’t able to go. That was unfortunate as I was planning on taking a few extra days so we could drive to the ocean, drive into the Cascade mountains and to watch for orcas from the ferry ride across Puget Sound.

The two days before the actual start of the conference was a pre-admission workshop for students to strengthen their chances of getting into medical school and the health professions in general. I did not attend that part of the conference.

Shannon Wiegand, M.D. is a physician in Fairbanks, Alaska and she and I were the very first residents chosen for the Seattle Indian Health Board residency program in 1994. We laughed and cried together for the three years of our residency training and I’ve only seen her a couple of times since then. Residency is a glorious and terrifying time and those three years are where I learned to deliver babies and where I learned to break the news of a terminal illness and learned to walk with someone from that moment on through their final journey.

Some of my earliest mentors and teachers were at the conference. I sat with Terry Maresca, M.D. and she incorporates natural and herbal medicines into her practice and taught a session on herbal medicines and their use in chronic pain. Dale Walker, M.D. works in psychiatry and led a session on PTSD and historical trauma that was eye opening to me personally and made me realize I’ve been working in a vacuum of my own making since before I even applied for medical school. When I was young, maybe ten years old, I was in a car and witnessed a domestic beating from a distance of a couple of feet away and I never made a sound, never made an effort to stop it or intervene in any way. I sat back in the darkness of the car to protect myself and I was careful not to even breathe to avoid bringing that drunken wrath upon myself. I can replay that scene in my head and it plays in slow motion and I smell beer and cigarettes and see the silhouette in the dashboard lights of his fist coming up again and again and seeing blood spray from her nose and hearing the popping sound of her lips and then her soft whimpering crying as he turned back to the steering wheel and put the car in gear and started to drive again. I hadn’t allowed that vision in decades and it came flooding back to me during Dr. Walker’s presentation and I saw myself walking a path alone since that night, never fully trusting anyone but myself.

There were other students I could have helped when I was in my undergraduate studies and even in medical school and I didn’t reach out to them and several of them failed. Maybe things could have been different.

Erik Brodt, M.D. is just a relatively few years out of residency and is working with the We Are Healers project to use videos and the internet to reach out to our youth to get them interested in health careers. He showed a series of short and powerful videos showcasing American Indian doctors working and also doing things outside of medicine so others can get a glimpse into the lives they could have. You can search We Are Healers on the Internet to find the videos and make sure the young people in your lives see them. They will be filming me in late September.

I spent time talking with students at the conference and was struck by how much difference even just a short conversation could have with someone uncertain if becoming a doctor is the right thing to do or if it’s too difficult to even dream the dream.

I sat with the former Director of the Indian Health Service and she told me I need to reach further and that my words need to reach a bigger audience and I will be working to that end. Judith Kaur, M.D. is one of our physicians and she is one of the leaders of the Spirit of Eagles cancer prevention and education initiative out of the Mayo Clinic and I renewed my commitment to working with her in any way I can. Their long-term goal is to reduce cancer health disparities by maintaining and expanding tribal community networks.

They had a powwow on Saturday night of the conference and Peter Talbot, M.D. stopped by to catch up with any residents or other doctors he may not have seen for awhile. He has been at the Seattle Indian Health Board for thirty-eight years and was one of my primary teachers as I was becoming a doctor. On days when I’m late to clinic, I tell myself it’s because Peter Talbot taught me to sit on the edge of a hospital bed and explain things in terms people can understand and answer any questions they might have, however long that might take.

During the powwow, I gave asemaa to Tim Tallchief, the AAIP powwow master of ceremonies and asked for an honor song for Peter. The Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS) had an auction for a blanket as a fundraiser. The bidding was rapid at first, but as it kept going higher and higher the bids came in slower and slower until the bidders wouldn’t even look Tim in the eye. Tim called the final offer, “going once, going twice…” and I raised my hand and “Sold! To Doctor Arne Vainio!”

Then he announced the honor song for Dr. Talbot and this came as a total surprise to Peter. He came to the center of the arena and Shannon and I put the blanket around his shoulders as the drum group started the honor song. We danced in place as everyone came by to shake his hand and then we finally started dancing around the arena. Shannon and I danced with him and his wife, Lani and we ended a beautiful evening with all those doctors and medical students and community members dancing with us to honor Peter and his life of commitment to Indian Health. There were many other American Indian doctors from multiple tribes at the conference and all of them are working to better the health of our people.

Mary Owen, M.D. is the Director for the Center for American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota, Duluth School of Medicine. I live within ten miles of the medical school and I pat myself on the back sometimes because I teach a session for the incoming first year students every year and I have medical students spend time with me in the clinic.

Seeing all these physicians and hearing them speak and seeing their dedication makes me realize what I’ve been doing isn’t enough. We need healthy, drug free communities. We need to be recruiting our youth even harder to get them into medicine. We need to keep those students in medical school once they get there.

We need to do that not as individuals, but together. Encourage your youth, support them and expect great things from them. Send them to us.

We are the Association of American Indian Physicians.

We Are Healers.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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