Mashkikiwinini: “Arne, it’s Joy. Dr. Haller is really, really sick.”

by Dr. Arne Vainio
News From Indian Country

Earlier today there was a message on my voicemail. “Arne, it’s Joy. Dr. Haller is really, really sick.” Joy and I were in the same medical school class. I tried to call her back, but there was no answer.

I left a couple of phone messages to call me back. I tried her pager, but it was an old number, no longer in service. I left a message at her home number to call me. I then called the hospitals in the area, but he was not in any of them.

I knew this was serious, but I also knew it wasn’t something that just happened today. If he wasn’t in the hospital, it wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke. I started running through the possibilities in my head. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. Unlikely lung cancer or liver failure, I thought to myself. I waited for her to call me back.

When she finally was able to call me, my worst fears were confirmed. Ed had fallen twice in the past week. He had a scan done, there was a 4 centimeter mass in the right frontal area of his brain. He was intermittently confused.

A good friend of his went to visit him and wasn’t entirely sure Ed recognized him. I hadn’t wanted to call his house until I knew something. I didn’t want to intrude on him or his family, I didn’t know if I was calling at a bad time. After I hung up with Joy, I looked up his number in the phone book.

His wife answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Irina, it’s Arne Vainio. I just heard about Ed. How’s he doing?”

“I’m glad you called. He’ll want to talk to you. I’ll put him on.”

“Hello, Arne?” Ed’s voice was soft and quiet.

“Ed, I just heard. How are you?” I asked.

“Not as good as you.” He answered. He proceeded to tell me that his mass was diffuse (spread out) and was non-operable. It was a large tumor, at this point not known exactly what this was. It was Friday now, he had a biopsy scheduled for Monday. This was to be a stereotactic biopsy, the Neurosurgeon was going to have the tumor localized from 2 different directions in order to go in to get a tissue sample.

At this point, the 2 most likely possibilities were either a lymphoma (cancer of the immune system) or a glioblastoma, which is a primary brain tumor. If this turned out to be a lymphoma, there are chemotherapy drugs that work fairly well. If it turned out to be a glioblastoma, the options were less well defined.

“We’ll put out tobacco for you.” I told him. “Is there anything else we can do?”

“Come and visit,” was all he said.

I first met Ed Haller when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD). He was faculty at the medical school and taught Physiology. He’s been a pioneer in funding efforts for Native American programs at the medical school and worked with Native American undergrad students for some of the medical school summer programs.

Right from the start he became one of my primary mentors and we worked on a research project together. Initially this started out as an academic relationship, but over time we became friends. Ed very much advocated for me getting into the Medical School at UMD. He believed in me and wasn’t afraid to tell me so.

At the time, no one in my family had ever gone on to college, let alone medical school and I was unsure of how to proceed at many steps along the way. Ed was always there to support me and to answer questions. He has always had an interest in Native American issues and has been an advocate for many Native students.

When I was in my first 2 years of Medical School we were in the same building, so I visited him often. For my 3rd and 4th years of medical school, I was in Minneapolis and didn’t see him. I went to Seattle for my residency after that and lost contact with him for the most part.

When I finished residency and came back to Minnesota, I always meant to stop in and visit him, but rarely got to the medical school. He retired and I saw him only if I bumped into him by chance. He always wanted to talk longer, I was always late or behind schedule and didn’t spend the time with him that I needed to. I promised I would try to stay in touch.

How do promises get broken? Not intentionally. When I was working with Ed, I really think he thought of me as a son. He was always ready to bail me out or to offer advice, or just to listen. Did I return that favor? Not really. But I never meant it to happen that way.

In the course of writing these articles, I have thought long and hard about the many people who have helped me along the way. This list is long, and still growing. I have wanted to thank them publicly, and will still get around to doing that.

Ed Haller was on that list right from the start, but this isn’t the way I wanted to thank him. However, I don’t know how long Ed can wait for this. Ed doesn’t know either. I want to thank him while he can still read this and know that I appreciate all that he has done for me. There is no way I would be writing these articles as a physician if it wasn’t for Ed Haller. He has been a source of strength and inspiration for me from the first time I met him.

My father died when I was 4 years old. There are a few men that have filled that role for me when I needed them over the years. Ed definitely filled that role and I definitely needed him.

I am going to visit Ed this weekend, and as often as I can. I am going to keep my promise. It’s the least that I can do after all he’s done for me.

Thank you, Edwin W. Haller, Ph.D.
Arne Vainio, MD.