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Alumni Spotlight | Arne Vainio, M.D.

Arne Vainio, M.D., made a documentary film to show his middle-aged Native American male patients what to expect from disease screening tests, using himself as a sample patient. (Photo: Dan Schlies)

On the big screen

A family physician who had worked hard to build trusting relationships with his Native American patients at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation, Arne Vainio, M.D., was frustrated.

When he’d see patients for specific ailments, Vainio would encourage them to come back for annual physicals and routine screenings, especially those who had family histories of disease. But time and again, patients failed to take his advice.

At the same time, Vainio’s wife, Ivy Vainio, repeatedly urged him to get those screenings himself, but he would find reasons not to—even though his mother had diabetes and hypertension and his younger brother had a stroke at age 46.

Then he realized it—he was a hypocrite.

So Vainio put himself in his patients’ shoes. He went to his doctor for a complete workup, including a blood pressure test, diabetes screening, cholesterol check, prostate cancer exam, and colonoscopy.

And he filmed it all to show his patients exactly what to expect.

“You can talk the talk, but I wanted to walk the walk and show people that I was afraid of these things, too, and that it’s not that big of a deal,” says Vainio, a member of the Medical School Class of 1994 and an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “I really do owe it to my family to live longer, to take care of myself.”

Vainio’s documentary film, Walking into the Unknown, premiered March 23 at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before a crowd of about 200 people.

“It was clear from watching the film and the reaction of the crowd… that this film will have an enormous impact on the healthy lives of Native men,” says Joycelyn Dorscher, M.D., director of the University’s Center of American Indian and Minority Health and Vainio’s Medical School classmate.

Setting an example

Choosing an audience for Walking into the Unknown was easy for Vainio, who received the University of Minnesota Medical Alumni Society’s Early Distinguished Career Award last year.

“I used to tell people that this was a film for middle-aged Native American men in denial,” he says, including himself in that group. “But you could take out Native American. And you could take out middle-aged. … The message is universal.”

The film addresses five major health threats that disproportionately affect Native Americans: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, alcoholism, and suicide. With each section, Vainio’s doctor and colleague, David Jorde, M.D., Medical School Class of 1998, provides basic information about each disease and its related screening tests and prevention methods.

The film also includes personal stories from men who have been affected by each health issue and an interview with a Native spiritual leader about why Native Americans, particularly, might be hesitant to see their doctor.

Vainio’s group whittled down hundreds of hours of video footage to a 65-minute documentary. Vainio insisted on keeping the more “graphic” elements in the film, including his blood draws, colonoscopy, and prostate exam.

“I talk to men’s groups, and the prostate exam is the thing that makes men run the other way,” he says. “They’re never any fun … but it was 30 seconds. It’s no big deal.”

An enlightening process

It’s been about two-and-a-half years since Vainio started working on the film with his wife, who produced it, and director Nate Maydole. The film’s small budget—about $20,000—was spent mostly on equipment.

Vainio is now traveling to around the country to talk about Walking into the Unknown, which is available at 335 American Indian Special Diabetes Programs throughout the United States and can be purchased for $15 at

Vainio says he wants the film—which is not a moneymaking venture—to be seen and get people talking.

“It already has made a difference. People have already been coming in,” he says, citing two of his patients who had full physical exams the week after the film’s Duluth premiere.

Making the film has made a difference in Vainio’s own life as well. After his blood-sugar test revealed that he had prediabetes, Vainio took a class on making healthier food choices and started exercising more. Since his first filmed clinic visit, he has lost 17 pounds.

Tackling his own fears about his health has been empowering, too, he says.

“I’m really the same as everybody else,” Vainio says. “Having an M.D. after my name doesn’t change anything. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were filming, I might have chickened out myself. But I’m glad I went through with it.”

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