A young woman selling watermelons

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

My wife Ivy and I traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona in late July to attend the 47th annual conference of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP). It was 116 degrees when we arrived. We picked up the rental car and drove through the desert to the hotel and I could see the outlines of the mountains and the cacti against the starry night.

The next morning was a day for mentoring students hoping to get into medical school. Many are first generation college students and don’t know someone who can guide them through the complicated medical school application process. They needed help with applications and with their personal statements. The personal statement is a written story of what brings someone to the field of medicine and needs to be written in a way that is concise, professional and engaging.

There are some hard stories out there and some of the students came from backgrounds of poverty and heartbreak. Most of them had relatives who died too soon from preventable diseases and they wanted to go into medicine to stop that from happening to someone else. Other physicians and I spent all day working on those stories and helping go through questions on other parts of the application. We let the students know we were there for them any time they needed us.

Ivy isn’t one to sit in a hotel room and she started making short videos of the pre-med students, med students and physicians and shared them to AAIP’s Facebook page. She’s a genius when it comes to social media and during the 5 days we were there, she uploaded 37 videos and over 51,000 people were made aware of AAIP and ANAMS (Association of American Indian Medical Students). Ivy tagged everyone’s tribes to the videos and the tribes were sharing her videos on Facebook. Go to the Facebook pages for the Association of American Indian Physicians and the Association of American Indian Medical Students and like the pages and share the videos so we can get word out that we want our people going into medicine and we want to help them jump the hurdles along the way.

I spent five days with the most motivated medical professionals I know. All of the AAIP physicians have dedicated their lives to Indian health and to making sure students follow us to continue that work. These physicians bring their traditions with them and we share our traditions with each other. Brian Thompson, M.D. is Oneida from New York and he is an OB/GYN doctor and is the Assistant Dean of Diversity at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. He teaches medical students and he keeps his traditions. He is currently bringing his son through ceremonies to prepare him for his next stage of life. He came to me one morning and brought me outside and told me he needed to sing one of his traditional songs for me. He held my hand and led me along the sidewalk and he sang to the sky and the mountains and to the spirits he holds important and he was singing for me.

I have never been so honored in my life.

We spent all day in airports and on planes and got home late the day the conference ended. We talked on the way home about all the true compassion and dedication we were surrounded by during those few days. Olympic legend Billy Mills was there and he has never stopped working to make the world a better and more inclusive place. I danced with my teachers at the powwow and I danced with those who will one day remember me as a teacher.

Then it was back to work. I felt different somehow and I felt a stronger connection with those I sat with and I felt my traditions stronger than ever when I put my asemaa down in the morning. I felt it when I was rounding in the hospital and seeing patients in the clinic and I felt it later that night when I was sitting next to an old friend with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I held his hand and talked to him and thanked him for being my teacher and I told him I will keep his teachings with me and I will pass them on and know they came from him. I sang him an old song on the hand drum he had made for me and I could hear his wife crying behind me as I was singing.

The next day I was driving home from baling hay and there was a truck parked on the corner selling vegetables. I stopped there often on the way home. Usually it was a farmer sitting there and I was used to making small talk with him about tractors and farm equipment.

This time was different. There was a young woman there and she was in her early twenties. She was sitting in a folding chair next to the truck and she was reading a novel that had to be at least 300 pages. The cover was gone and the pages were dog-eared and folded and I knew she had read this book again and again. She was thin and had black horn rimmed glasses and she was wearing a black dress. Her hair was bright purple and she got up when I came to the table.

“I’m just looking for a watermelon.” I told her.

“You came to the right place.” She said.

I looked at all the watermelons and thumped them and turned them over and finally picked one out.

“You think you got the right one?” she asked with a slight smile. I could see now that someone had hurt her at some point. Her nose had been broken and was bent to the right. It was slight, but noticeable and I couldn’t help thinking she didn’t have the resources to get it fixed when it happened and maybe that meant she didn’t have the support of her family. She took my money and counted out the change and looked up at me.

“What’s your plan? Are you in school?” I asked her.

She seemed a little surprised, but she answered. “I was in a veterinarian tech program and someone brought in a dog that was run over by a lawnmower. We couldn’t save him and I just couldn’t do that anymore.”

“Is that not a metaphor for this?” I waved my hand toward the corn in the back of the truck and the cucumbers and tomatoes on the table and the watermelon I had just bought. “You can’t give up because something bad happened. Maybe one day you would be that dog’s best bet. Maybe one day you would be that for a person.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I just need some time.”

“Maybe.” I took one of my cards out of my wallet. “We’re putting up hay and I don’t look like a doctor today, but that’s what I do. I can see things in people and I see much more than this in you.” I wrote down the website where she could find the stories I’ve written and I told her to start with Graduation Day and that my email was at the bottom of every one.

“You’re smart and you’re stronger than you think you are. You’ve been hurt and you’ve come through hard times and I can see a spark of something bigger in you. I want you to read these words and I want you to think about medical school. You’re capable of more than you know. I want you to promise to email me and in return I promise I will believe in you.”

I put my hand out and she took it and we shook hands. She was crying and her black mascara was running down her cheeks. “I will.” She whispered.

Those pre-med students and medical students at the conference are our children and our grandchildren and our nephews and nieces. Those young people belong to us and we need to support them and we don’t know where we will find them. It might be that quiet kid in the back of the classroom or it might be a long distance runner. It might be someone who watched an elder suffer and doesn’t want to see that happen to anyone else.
And it might be a young woman selling watermelons.

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 contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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