ďA good day for a PowwowĒ
The day was hot right from the start and the sun was relentless from the moment it broke over the trees. A good day for a powwow if a breeze would kick up.
I have a ribbon shirt an elder on the Fond du Lac reservation made for me and I wear it when Iím speaking at conferences sometimes, but normally if I dance at a powwow itís in my regular clothes.
My colors were given to me a decade or so ago and I wear a yellow shirt with red and black ribbons.
More and more lately Iíve been thinking about our veterans. When I first became a doctor I had a patient in my schedule who needed a refill on his medicines. I had this pegged as a quick and easy visit and a time to catch up on my schedule.
He had a 15 minute appointment and I was behind when I got to him. He was about 74 years old, hard of hearing and was having a hard time breathing. Instead of a list of his medicines, or even bottles with the names of his medicines, he had a small rubber coin purse in his pocket. He squeezed it open and it was full of pills. All of them different and he didnít know what any of them were for. Not only that, but his blood pressure was very high and I couldnít get him to give me a straight answer on anything. Every question seemed to lead to a story, but never an answer.
I had to bring his pills to the pharmacy to see if they could identify them so I could fill them, but didnít know how often or how many of each he took. He tried to tell me, but each pill had a story with it and he was only going by color and shape on his pills. At the rate he was going, it could easily take all day to find out what they were and he had already used his 15 minute appointment and I was being paged that I was now 2 patients behind.
PLUS, he told me that some blood pressure medicine he tried once gave him severe abdominal pain and he had to be hospitalized because of it. But he couldnít remember the name of the medicine. I didnít dare start any new medicines until I had that information. He couldnít remember if it was a VA in Minnesota or in California. We sent records releases to both VA hospitals and I was unaware at the time that it would take 6 months to get the records.
We filled his medicines, but I was unable to add any more medicines for his blood pressure as I didnít know which one put him in the hospital. So for 6 long months his blood pressure continued to run high.
I started to dread seeing his name on my schedule as every visit was as long and confusing as the first one and I never seemed to make any headway with his blood pressure. He had breathing problems and a chest x-ray showed he had asbestosis, which was advanced to the point where it was almost like a shell around his lungs and there was no treatment for it. I came to find he was a soldier in World War II and spent much of his time in the hold of a ship grinding brakes for trucks and never once wore a mask.
He spent most of his war time covered in asbestos dust and breathed it in continuously.
Over many visits, I was able to piece out much of his history. He was on Normandy Beach during World War II and he brought in his Purple Heart and a thin metal helmet with holes torn through it and shrapnel in the helmet webbing. He was 19 years old when he was on that beach.
I felt bad for thinking of him as an old man with a poor memory and never enough time booked for our visits. I shook his hand and was so choked up I could barely thank him for his service to our country as he left that day and have never thought of him since as anything but a warrior.
We were in Seattle a few months ago for a conference and spent 2 extra days there. We have two families we always want to spend time with in Seattle and planned one full day with each of them.
John is 70 and was a scout in the Vietnam War. H-Troop, 17th Armored Cavalry Hellcats. He was in Vietnam from 10/22/67-10/1/71 and because he was smaller, he was a scout. Which meant he went first whenever patrols went out and if there was a tunnel somewhere, he went in. Mortality was high in his unit and many of the men he started with didnít survive.
It isnít something he talks about, even to his family.
John and I spent countless hours together when I was in my residency in Seattle and we worked on old trucks together. He has forgotten more about being a mechanic than I will ever know and I still call him when Iím working on something and I need advice. Our friendship runs deep and he and his family have done much for ours.
He lost track of his unit after the war, but thought about them in his quiet moments. One of them contacted him for a reunion and John and his wife traveled to rejoin them. This reopened wounds he had long kept hidden and was a very emotional experience for him as many in his unit have never mentally left Vietnam. He isnít certain he can go through another reunion like this.
One of the men in his unit had a coin commissioned with the unit, service dates and the inscription, in part:
ďIn Honor of Our KIA Troopers. Duty. Honor. Country. Some gave all. You will never be forgotten.Ē
John has one of these for himself. When we were visiting him in Seattle, he brought out the one he saved for me. I take it out and look at it often and I think about John and I think about our other forgotten warriors. But not forgotten today.
ďThe sun is hot and the sky is clear.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.