I will ALWAYS be your friend

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

In March I was asked to travel to remote reserves in Ontario, Canada. This was a beautiful and powerful experience and I will never be the same. I was asked to go again and was in Ontario for five days in October. I traveled with Charlene from the Northwest Community Care Access Centre, Thunder Bay and Florence Highway, an elder from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Florence and her sister were forcefully taken away from her family when she was a little girl and put into a residential school. Her father was gone at the time and her mother didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand why her children were being taken from her. She was driven far away from her family, her braids were cut off and she was forbidden to speak her language. This was the beginning of a downward spiral that would span decades. “I was always told before that that I was a beautiful little girl inside and once I was taken away I was told I was stupid and ugly. When I got older I fell in with the wrong lifestyle because I couldn’t go back home and I just wanted someone, anyone to accept me.”

We started the first day with three different presentations in Thunder Bay and the first one was at the Indian Friendship Center. Every seat was full and Florence told her story first and I could tell many of the elders there connected with her story. We had lunch and then I showed “Walking Into the Unknown” and the questions for Florence and I went well over the time allotted for them. I was asked questions about heart disease, diabetes, chemotherapy and cancer. For some reason, I can never seem to give a short and direct answer.  I felt it was important to explain the basics of cancer and when and why surgery, chemotherapy and radiation were used as treatments.

This made us late for the second presentation and we walked into a room full of health professionals who had already exhausted their business meeting objectives and small talk. The room was totally quiet when we walked in and the main reason we were there was to try to help everyone understand why they weren’t connecting with their First Nations clients the way they wanted to.  Florence’s story hit them hard and many of them were totally unaware of the things that happened to children in those schools and the burden they carried for the rest of their lives. They were unaware of what it meant for entire culture to lose a generation of parents. I showed the suicide segment of the film and talked to them about issues of power in the dominant culture and how they didn’t even understand the imbalance when they walked into any interaction with their First Nations clients. We were video linked to another packed conference room and six remote sites. We went over our time and there were lots of questions afterward.

We were almost late to our final visit of the day. This was the Canadian Diabetes Association conference and Florence again went first and I showed the diabetes segment of the film and spoke after that. The questions for both of us spilled into the hallway afterward.
 
The next day we took a small plane to one of the remote communities and we spoke to about fifteen elders and twenty some high school students.  I was watching the elders as Florence told her story and I could tell many of them had similar experiences and had kept it to themselves this entire time.  I talked to the students about becoming a physician and told them we needed them as much or even more than they needed us. I talked to them about not listening to anyone who told them they were incapable of doing something and that it only meant the person telling them was incapable of it. It was snowing hard when we left and the streets in the village were mud and the side of the plane was covered with mud from landing on the dirt airstrip in the heavy, wet snow. We got back to Thunder Bay in time to try to make it to one of the high schools with a high First Nations student population. The remote villages don’t have the resources to have their own high schools and they only go through the ninth grade. After that the students go to city schools and have to be apart from their families and they live with host families. One of the students was murdered in the weeks before we got there and we were hoping to be able to talk to the students. School was almost out when we finally got there and we were unable to talk to them, but we did spend time with the guidance counselor. He immediately knew what we were hoping to do and he invited me to come back to speak to the students at one of the schoolwide events and we will be setting that up.

By this time, Florence and I were very close.

The next day we flew to Sioux Lookout and had two presentations at the hospital. For the evening presentation it looked like we weren’t going to have many people attending and we moved everything to the hostel where patients from remote communities stay when they have extended treatments or when they’re first getting dialysis set up. We had a makeshift DVD player balanced on top of the TV on the wall because the cord was too short, but we made do with what we had. There was a man in the back of the room in a wheelchair. Part of his foot was missing and I could tell this was the reason he was in the hospital. He was pretending like he wasn’t really watching the film, but at the end of it he came up to me in his wheelchair and extended his hand to me. He never said a word, but I could tell it was important to him that we touched like that.

I made sure he knew it was just as important to me.

The next day we drove to one of the remote villages and our community presentation was at 1:00. Charlene is never one to let an opportunity pass and we went to the school to talk to the students. The vice principal gave us a tour of the school and arranged to have us talk to the seventh and eighth grade, then to the fifth and sixth grades.

Florence talked to them first and we were running out of time to show any film segments to the students and I told them briefly how exciting it was to be a doctor and how I was able to travel and work with smart and caring people every single day. One of the fifth grade boys had question after question for me:

“What it the flu? What is pneumonia? Why are people afraid of needles? What happens if you get bit by a pregnant spider?”

I answered all of them and told him in front of his class that maybe he should think about going to medical school. We were getting ready to leave the room and he came up to the front. “Thank you,” he whispered as he hugged me.

As we were getting ready to leave the school, he came up to me again. “Dr. Vainio, can I show you something?”

He sat down at the beat up old upright piano in the entryway of the school and he started to play. And he played. No sheet music, no mistakes. We were supposed to be leaving for the community presentation, but I knelt next to the piano and he played for me and he played and his small hands danced over the keys. He was playing his own music and he was playing from somewhere deep inside and he was playing simply for the love of playing.
“Thank you”, I whispered to him when he finished and I gave him one of my cards. He got up and ran back to his classroom. I had to go talk to the vice principal and tell her I gave a fifth grader one of my cards and that I didn’t want that to seem inappropriate. I just didn’t want him to fall through the cracks and I really do think he should go to medical school. I wanted to stay in touch with her so she could let me know how he’s doing. She told me he wanted to paint that old piano someday and that she was going to help him with it.

Florence and Charlene and I had our last meal together that night as the next day I was flying on to Kenora to be the keynote speaker at the Kenora Diabetes Expo and they were driving to one of the most remote communities that can be driven to. We had dinner overlooking one of the lakes and the sunset was spectacular over the snowy shoreline.

Florence gave me a beaded brooch for Ivy and she gave me a beaded key ring for me. She once beaded a medallion and hung it around Prince Edward’s neck when he was in Canada for a state visit. I gave her a copy of the film and I wrote on the front cover:

“Florence-

Your story will bring healing wherever and whenever it is heard. You still are that beautiful little girl you thought you left behind. I will ALWAYS be your friend.”
She cried when I gave it to her.

Have I ever told you I love my job?

Arne Vainio, M.D. is 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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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