Thanks to those who helped me swim

By Arne Vainio, M.D
News From Indian Country 7-08

I was recently awarded the Early Distinguished Career Award by the University of Minnesota Medical Alumni Society. It turns out this is a very big deal. I am the first Native American to receive this award, and the first graduate from the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus. When I first started Medical School in 1990, I never would have dreamt this possible. I am grateful for this honor, and wish my mother was alive to be there when it is officially awarded on September 26, 2008, in Minneapolis. This one would have made her cry.

How did I come to receive this award? Not alone. Many have helped me swim when it would have been easier to watch me sink. These are the people who wrote letters in support of me or were involved in the process:

Gary L. Davis, Ph.D. is currently the Senior Associate Dean of the Duluth Medical School and wrote the summary letter combining all the elements of the individual letters. Thanks, Dr. Davis!

Melanie Benjamin is the Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe where I am enrolled. She is dedicated to improving conditions in Indian Country and works tirelessly on the reservation and around the nation to make sure Indian voices are heard and acknowledged. Our whole country desperately needs more leaders like Melanie. Miigwetch, Melanie!

Phil Norrgard is the Director of Human Services on the Fond du Lac Reservation where I work. I love working at the Min No Aya Win clinic for multiple reasons. Phil is one of those reasons and I have come to know him as a friend as well as in his role as the Director of Human Services.

Michelle Juntunen is the Director of Medical Advancement at the Duluth Medical School. I have worked with her on multiple events over the past few years. Michelle was instrumental in getting the nomination process started. I will always be thankful our paths crossed.

Dan Hunt, M.D., M.B.A. is the LCME Secretary 2008-2009, Vice President, Division of Medical Education for the Association of American Medical Colleges. I first met him in Seattle at the University of Washington Medical School. He has a long career in the education of past, present and future doctors, including Native American doctors. It’s good to know that such an honest and ethical man is in his position.

Ralph Forquera, M.P.H. is the Executive Director of the Seattle Indian Health Board and has been working in and around Indian health for over 30 years. He knows health care and he knows Indian people. That combination has been a great benefit to the Indian population in the Seattle area.

Mark Gujer, M.D. is now the Medical Director for Peri-operative Services at the Minnesota Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in Crosby, Minnesota. I first met him as my Paramedic instructor when I was on the Virginia Fire Department in Virginia, Minnesota. He still ranks as one of my best teachers ever and I have never known anyone to live and breathe medicine the way he does.

Bret Benally Thompson, M.D. is a Fellow in Palliative Care at the Providence Alaska Medical Center. He is in the process of finishing his training and great things await him and those patients who will share his future. His traditional Ojibwe background will help him in dealing with suffering and end of life issues. I cannot think of anyone better suited than Bret to help patients and their families during this most difficult of times.

Lance Whitehair, MS1 is a first year medical student. Working with medical students is a privilege and I never want to lose the sense of purpose I get when I’m with a student like Lance.

Jean Howell, MS3 is a third year medical student. He followed me in the clinic in his first year of medical school. He is dedicated to Indian Health and I look forward to watching his developing medical career.

Ruth Westra, D.O., M.P.H is the Chair, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the UMD Medical School. She is in on the ground floor when it comes to the education of medical students. They could not have chosen better.

Joycelyn Dorscher, M.D. is the Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health for the Duluth and Twin Cities campuses of the Medical School. She is the Past President of the Association of American Indian Physicians and she and I were in the same entering medical school class in 1990. I have known Joy to be totally dedicated as a medical student, now as a physician and in charge of helping minorities get into and stay in medical school. This is a big responsibility and could not have fallen on stronger shoulders.

Lillian Repesh, Ph.D is the Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Admissions at the Duluth Medical School. Right from my first days as a medical student she was watching out for me and once offered me her own money so I could go home on Christmas break. What kind of teacher does that? A great one. Thanks, Dr. Repesh!

Janice Crede is the Campus Sustainability Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin, Superior. Her life’s work is dedicated to environmental issues and preserving our planet. 2 of my vehicles are powered by waste vegetable oil and I first met her when she had me teach a session on biofuels to one of her classes. Janice and I are kindred spirits.

Kris Cunningham, M.D. was a medical student when I first met him. He was part of the Rural Physician Associate Program and spent 10 months with me when he was in his third year of medical school. I have NEVER seen a medical student work as hard as Kris, and I know he will have much to offer his patients when he finishes his training. I would be proud to work with him.

Greta Klassen is 70 years old and is one of my all time favorite patients. We’ve been through good times and bad times in the 7 years since she chose me as her doctor. She has a positive outlook on life that I hope I can always keep for myself. I can’t remember ever not knowing Greta.

I met Ivy in September 1988 and am lucky enough to have married her in 1997. Everyone’s heard “I couldn’t have done it without my wife.” In my case, it’s actually true. She is a consummate organizer and makes sure I meet deadlines for articles, she sets up my speaking engagements and everyone knows that I am not to be trusted with my own schedule. Without her, my schedule (and my life) would completely fall apart.

These are just some of the people who have helped me along the way. None of us makes it alone. Sometimes it seems like no one understands us as individuals, and it’s humbling to have to reach out for help. But when I’ve reached out, help has always been there. We do that for each other. An old African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It seems it takes one to raise a doctor, too.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..