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Fond du Lac doctor honored as ‘unsung hero’

"It came out of the blue," Dr. Arne Vainio said, the excitement evident in his voice. "It was a total surprise and a nice surprise." Vainio, a physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Reservation, was awarded the 2...

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Dr. Arne Vainio was awarded the 2016 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award on Friday, Sept. 9, in Minneapolis. Vainio is a physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Reservation, a mad scientist and a heck of a storyteller. Photo by Ivy Vainio

“It came out of the blue,” Dr. Arne Vainio said, the excitement evident in his voice. “It was a total surprise and a nice surprise.”

Vainio, a physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Reservation, was awarded the 2016 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award on Friday. Vainio was one of four recipients of the award from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN).

Vainio said he was awed by being one of four finalists picked out of the original 127 nominees.

“To me it means that 123 other people who are heroes are still unsung,” Vainio said. “I could look around and see a lot of deserving people. Even just being in the same room with those people was way cool!”

Vainio is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a physician at Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

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Vainio is matter of fact about his family history. He grew up in poverty. His dad committed suicide when he was 4 years old and his mom died the night he graduated from his residency.

He also had siblings who died, one was a brother who died alone in a shack with no electricity or running water.

“I see myself as so fortunate,” Vainio said. “I should have died in that shack.”

Vainio spends long hours serving his patients at the clinic, as well as traveling to reservations across America to discuss native health, suicide and native traditions.

One of Vainio’s goals is to get Native American youth excited about science and math.

He participates in the annual Ojibwe language camp - started by his dear friends Pat and Jim Northrup, among others - on the Fond du Lac Reservation and brings his "Mad Doctor Science Project” to reservation classrooms and places that don't have enough resources to help encourage students and let them know that it's OK to like science and math.

“Not everybody has a Van de Graaff generator,” Vainio said, referring to the static globe that makes people's hair stand on end when they touch it.

Vainio wants the young people to understand that they can be both traditional Anishinaabe and a scientist.

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“I want people to see someone with a ponytail and think, ‘Wow, there goes someone smart,’” Vainio said.

Since 1985, The McKnight Foundation has recognized Minnesotans who have improved the quality of life for individuals and the community around them through the Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. In 2015, MCN partnered with McKnight to coordinate and present the first-ever Unsung Hero Awards, honoring individuals doing life-changing work in communities across Minnesota with little or no recognition.

“The Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards reveal what so many of us already know: Minnesota has no shortage of people doing amazing things with and for others in their communities on a daily basis,” said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. “To be able to shine a spotlight on some of the most inspiring of these individuals - despite their aversion to this type of recognition - is an honor that goes beyond words.”

Another project Vainio has done to help educate people is made a film with the help of his wife called “Walking Into the Unknown.”

Vainio’s original plan was to surprise his wife by getting a colonoscopy done, which he had been putting off, then writing about it. In the end the film followed Vainio through several different procedures to help educate Native Americans and help take the fear out of common medical procedures that can save lives.

“My goal is to take the fear out of medical procedures,” Vainio said.

The film has been shown on over 200 stations.

Native American people have traditionally passed their stories down through the generations by storytelling. Vainio decided to blend the two cultures and write a health column in the voice of a storyteller. He blends the facts of different aspects of health care with personal stories to make it easier to understand, which in turn takes the fear of the unknown out of the equation.

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Vainio also enjoys using Facebook to get the word out.

“Facebook is actually a powerful tool,” Vainio said. “Some of the stories are hilarious and some are serious.”

At times when Vainio felt overwhelmed as a physician having to deal with the details of the job such as charts and insurances and feeling more burdened, he changed his point of view.

“I saw people in a different light,” Vainio said. “People are coming to see me because they are afraid of something. I explain things to them.”

He added that nurses always know when he has been explaining things because there are many drawings including faces on the backs of his papers.

Vainio received a cash prize of $10,000 from the McKnight Foundation and MCN during a private awards luncheon at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis Friday, Sept. 9.

Vainio didn’t actually ever accept the money. According to his wife, Ivy, instead he donated $5,000 to the American Indian Cancer Foundation, $1,000 to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and $4,000 ($1,000 each) to the breast cancer fundraisers of four other men who are “Real Men Wear Pink” American Cancer Foundation ambassadors in the Northland along with Vainio.

Award recipients will also be recognized at the 2016 MCN Annual Conference on Thursday, Oct. 6, in Duluth.

“What I do is a privilege,” Vainio said. “If I wasn't doing this, I wouldn't be doing what I was meant to do: helping someone else up. It’s a cool place to come from.”

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