Arne Vainio, M.D., receives the Physician of the Year from the Association of American Indian Physicians during the organization's annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 28, 2017. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: Sharing our stories with 'In the Spirit of Medicine'

In the Spirit of Medicine.

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

KUMD 103.3 asked me to read my stories on the air. I’ve been writing them for over ten years and I was pretty excited when they asked me. I went in for a test read so the station could see how my voice would sound, how long each story would be and if this would even lend itself to being something worth doing.

The test reading was on a day after I was on call. I was up most of the night taking care of hospital patients and I was exhausted. I had to record segments for the Health Matters part of WDSE’s Native Report prior to going to the radio station. Because I was tired and not fully paying attention, I sent one of the wrong scripts to the television studio and had to go back home to send the right one from my laptop and then go back and record it.

I was late to the radio station and all the parking spaces were full. On the second pass through the lot I saw someone pulling out and was able to get her spot. Once I got to the radio station, we went into the recording studio. The walls were covered with gray soundproof foam and I could see into the control booth through a window. I had headphones on and the microphone was about a half inch from my lips as we did the first read through.

I didn’t realize how much we don’t pay attention to our own breathing and I could hear my every breath through the headphones. I could hear only my own voice and it sounded foreign to me and it sounded too fast. I read the first story and I slowed my voice down and I vividly remembered everything about that interaction. Lisa, the radio station host, was crying in the control room when I finished reading and the recording light went dark.

I took the headphones off and I thought of the path that brought me to this point. I thought about growing up in poverty and not even knowing we were poor. I thought about everyone who had gone out of their way to make sure I stayed on my path to medical school. I thought about the triumphs and tragedies in the lives of those who wanted their stories told.

Even though it’s only going to be eight minutes or so every other week, we thought long and hard about what to call this radio segment. I wanted to pay homage to my Ojibwe side and wanted to use Ojibwe in the title. I am also Finnish and since my aunt in Los Angeles died in October, that side of my family is gone.

My grandfather and grandmother came to the United States from Finland in 1903 and 1909. My grandfather came first. My grandmother didn’t know him and traveled here alone on a ship when she was nineteen years old. I can’t imagine how a young girl traveling alone would have been preyed upon by those looking to take advantage of her and how many times that happened to other young girls.

We finally decided on “In the Spirit of Medicine” as the title. The next step was to find photos to go with the stories on the website as they will be archived there. I took the first few and my wife Ivy will contribute to this as she is able.

When it came time to find theme music to lead in and out of the segments, my first thought was Keith Secola. The number one requested song in all of North America on Native radio stations is Keith’s song Indian Cars. He sang it at the graveside of Ojibwe author Jim Northrup a couple of years ago.

Jim was a good friend and always a teacher. I sat with him by his fire as he was boiling maple syrup. There isn’t anything to do except keep the fire going and to tell stories and to listen to them on those snowy winter days.

I was hoping Keith would allow me to use a short segment of one of his songs and would send a suggestion of what song to use. Instead, he sent an original composition just for the radio segment. Keith knows these stories are about hard news and difficult situations and sometimes death.

He also knows these stories are about the strength that lies within all of us when times are at their darkest. All of that is in the music he sent to me.

Jim Northrup was a story teller. Keith is a story teller.

I am a story teller.

I want these stories to be shared with other radio stations and hopefully there is a way to do that. The first story will be on KUMD 103.3 on Monday, May 14, 2018 at 8 AM. I do not know how it will sound with the music and I want these stories to be told. I want to honor Keith’s faith in me and I want to honor the faith Jim had in me.

Jim’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago and he would have been seventy-five. He wanted me to write a book and he wanted to write the forward for it. His wife Pat won a 1964 Corvette at the casino years ago. He loved to travel in that car and he wrote about it. His Ojibwe name was Chibinesi. When we talk about someone who has passed on, we add –iban to their name. I want to honor him as a story teller.

Happy birthday, Chibinesi-iban. I’ll have your 1964 Corvette Sting Ray on the road soon. It still has the Rez Car license plates and the Marine Veteran windshield banner. You and I were always going to go on a road trip out west in that Corvette. We were going to write about what we saw from our individual perspectives and not share our thoughts until it was in writing. I always wondered what the sound of a simple engine backfire would mean to you with your war history. For me it would trigger thoughts of my uncle Punkin and the smell of Petri brandy in coffee and Marlboro cigarettes and hunting illegally to feed our families when I was ten years old.

I still plan on making that trip and you and I will still be riding together.

Giigawaabamin, Jim. I will see you again.

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

Join the Conversation