Dr. Arne Vainio is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He describes his pathway to medicine as a pinball that bounced off many different spots before arriving where it was meant to be. Before entering medical school, he worked in many jobs, including as a construction worker, firefighter, and paramedic. 


He entered the University of Minnesota Duluth as an undergraduate, although he says he could have been a better student. Growing up in a rural community, UMD was the biggest place he had ever been, and he always found it exciting. 


Dr. Vainio expressed tremendous gratitude for the many people who went out of their way to help him. Important mentors for Dr. Vainio included Conrad Firling, a biology instructor whom he describes as instrumental in his getting into medical school, and Edwin Haller, with whom he traveled to St. Louis to present a research poster. “Those experiences cemented for me that what you do for students makes a difference.” 


Dr. Vainio enjoys working with students coming from a variety of backgrounds. He emphasizes the importance of helping all students, especially those who may not have much family support. “Sometimes, I see people get into trouble with drugs and alcohol or other things. Redemption is out there, and recognizing and supporting people should be part of our job.” When he has students join him for patient visits, he reminds the patient that they are also a teacher in that setting.


Dr. Vainio has always intended to focus on Native health.  In medical school, he did as many clinical rotations as possible at Hennepin County Medical Center because it was the county hospital serving many poor and Native people. He did his residency at the Seatle Indian Health Board, where he saw patients from 125 different tribes. “It was a beautiful place and population with people who really cared about Native health.”  


Speaking about the future of medicine, Dr. Vainio shares, “I think medicine gets better all the time. I’ve been doing this for 26 years and am often amazed.” He cites the improving diagnostic tools and technology that are changing medicine. He is also realistic about the challenges and hopes for a better way. He shares, “An illness can still bankrupt a family.”


Reflecting on his path, Dr. Vainio said, “If someone had told me at eighteen, that I would be a future physician, we would have all been laughing.” He talks of zaagi’idiwin, the Ojibwe word for love, as a powerful medicine in all aspects of life. “We don’t talk about it in Western medicine, but it is important.”  


In Fond Du Lac, Dr. Vainio enjoys working with the population and a dedicated team of care providers. Outside of medicine, he enjoys the outdoors and an excellent traditional Finnish sauna. 


Photo: Ivy Vainio