Tree lights. Photo: Drew Geraets

Arne Vainio: Don't miss your opportunity to make life better for someone else

I won’t miss my opportunity next time.

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

I missed the print deadline for my last story. Something always happens around Christmas to make me appreciate the gifts we have and the things we do for each other and our interdependence. This year I didn’t have anything.

The snow was coming down hard and it was the beginning of another cold spell. The thermometer read 2.4 degrees above zero at 6 AM when I left the house. I had to get up an hour earlier and I had four patients to round on. One of them was a complicated patient in the ICU. The morning took longer than I intended and I knew I was going to be late for clinic as I walked out of the hospital and into the parking ramp. The ramp was full of slush and big chunks of dirty ice that had fallen off cars and I was trying to walk around them as I hurried to mine.

There was a rusty old grey car with one red door and a black hood and I could see someone crouched by the front tire on the driver’s side. It was a woman in her late fifties to early sixties and she was trying to loosen the lug nuts on a flat tire. She was wet from kneeling in the frozen slush and her hands were white from the cold and the jack was lying next to the car. Her jacket was old and dirty and wasn’t warm enough for the weather. Fixing a flat tire normally doesn’t take long and I could see she wasn’t able to do it.

I walked up to her car and she looked up at me. I nodded at her and she slowly got up and moved aside. It took me less than a minute to loosen the lug nuts and I put the jack under her car. The lug wrench didn’t fit on the jack and kept slipping when I tried to turn it.

“This isn’t the right jack for this car”, I told her.

“I guess not," she said. “Someone gave me this car and I need to make it last. It just needs to get me through the winter.”

I had some tools in the trunk of my car and found a ratchet and a socket that fit the jack and I started to raise up the car. I was able to get it high enough to get the flat tire off. She went into the trunk and got out the spare tire and rolled it to the front of the car. The tire was much bigger than the one I took off and I had to raise the car up further. As I started to raise it, I could see the jack starting to bend and I lowered the car until the jack looked better.

“We need to put the old tire back on. That jack is going to collapse.”

“”I’m not surprised”, she said. “Like I said, someone gave me the car. I should have been more careful, I cut that last corner too close in the snow and I hit the curb and I could feel the tire go flat.”

I went into the trunk of my car and took out my jack. It wasn’t the right one either, but I figured both jacks together would be enough to change the tire. As I was getting the jack under her car, my pager went off. I had a patient in clinic waiting for me and the clinic was a half hour away. I knew I needed to hurry and figured I could have the tire on in ten more minutes and try to make up some time on the freeway. I called the clinic and let them know I was going to be late.

The woman didn’t have gloves and she was blowing into her hands to keep them warm. The snow blew in through the open sides of the parking ramp and she tried to keep her back to the wind.

“I had to work all night and I was tired and that’s why I hit the curb. My husband is in the intensive care unit and I was coming to see him. He’s pretty sick and he isn’t getting better.”

She said that matter-of-factly and I could tell life dealt her disappointments and difficult situations on a regular basis. She didn’t mention any children or other relatives and I had the impression there was no one only a phone call away to come and help her. Everything I could see spoke of poverty.

I was trying to get my jack under the car without kneeling and I didn’t want to have my pants wet all day in the clinic. I finally got my jack under the car next to hers and raised the car enough to put the old tire back on. I had two of the lug nuts halfway on when her jack buckled and collapsed and the car lurched forward.

That put all the weight of the car on my jack and as the car went forward, my jack collapsed and folded and the old tire was barely on the car. It was plain to see there was no way we were going to get her tire changed. She seemed resigned to another setback and she sighed a deep sigh that told me she couldn’t miss a day of work. Losing her job could spiral into losing her place to live and I knew that rusty old car was her independence.

My pager went off and I had another patient waiting for me. I felt guilty as I picked up my tools and put them back in the trunk. My jack was bent and tangled in her bent jack under the car and I didn’t even try to get it out of there.

“Is there anyone you can call to come and help you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe my landlord, but he isn’t very nice. I know you have to leave and I appreciate what you tried to do for me.”

I drove out of the ramp and the snow was coming down hard as I turned onto the freeway. I thought of my mother after my dad’s suicide when I was four years old. I remember her going to the Co-op and she would always get two dollars worth of gas. I remember her getting a flat tire on the rusty old Ford she drove and she couldn’t get the lug nuts loose. My brother Kelly and I were too young to help and I remember us trying and trying to loosen them and we couldn’t do it. I remember her standing in the hot sun on the side of the road crying and I don’t remember who saved us.

I thought back to the woman in the parking ramp. I wish I would have had a better jack. I wish I would have had more time. I wish I would have given her some money. I wanted a do-over. I wanted a Christmas miracle and it didn’t happen.

Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. Sometimes we see someone in trouble and it’s easier to keep walking and hope someone else stops. All of us are that someone and we are all capable of making things just a little bit better for someone else. I won’t miss my opportunity next time.

Make sure you don’t miss yours.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and he is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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