Dr. Shawn Vainio, ’99: Living His Dream
January 20, 2012 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
He’s been to the highest point in North America, to the southernmost continent in the world, and to an array of locales in between. And while he never imagined his career would take him to such exotic locations — or even that he would live outside of Western New York — Dr.Shawn Vainio, ’99, has learned that if you are willing to work hard, you can achieve your dreams.
As a child in rural Byron, N.Y., Shawn enjoyed the outdoors. He hunted and fished with his father, a manufacturing engineer for Kodak; and helped tend the family’s large garden of fruits and vegetables. His mother inspired her son to serve others, setting an example each year by knitting mittens that young Shawn would place on the Christmas tree at St. Michael’s Parish for those in need. He was fascinated by science in those early years and says that first aid was his favorite subject while in the Boy Scouts. “Who wouldn’t love learning about hypothermia, lightning strikes, snakebites, etc?” he asks. A childhood heart condition spurred a personal interest in the field and solidified his desire to pursue a career as a doctor.
Shawn graduated from Byron-Bergen High School in 1995 as valedictorian of his class and Athlete of the Year, and enrolled at Niagara University on an honors scholarship with the dream of going to medical school. He continued his charitable endeavors while an undergraduate, participating in events including the American Cancer Society Daffodil sale and the Multiple Sclerosis Walk-a-thon, and volunteering as a coach for the Tonawanda youth wrestling program.
After graduating from Niagara with a B.S. in chemistry and biology in 1999, Shawn embarked on a journey that ignited his passion for travel. He had taken a few trips as a child –– locally and regionally with his high school wrestling team and to summer camps and the National Boy Scout Jamboree — but it wasn’t until he took a post-graduation cross-country trek of more than 11,000 miles, including 22 states and 12 national parks, that he says his “travel fate was sealed.”
When he returned to Western New York, Shawn attended the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. There, he met people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and developed a desire to go to India, where he could combine medicine, mountains (a new passion he discovered during his cross-country journey), and cultural exploration. During his fourth year as a medical student, he was able to realize that dream, traveling to India with the Himalayan Health Exchange, an organization that has been bringing medical and dental services to the rural Indio-Tibetan borderlands region of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh since 1996. Vainio was in India for two months, providing free medical care to the Tibetan refugees, Northern Indians and Gaddis people who call this remote area home. He distributed vitamins and medicines for a variety of conditions and treated patients with tuberculosis and leprosy. He notes that the people of Ladakh had only the local amchi (traditional Tibetan doctor) to turn to for medical help, and had no access to Western medicine. “I learned how little you can do by making a one-time pit stop in a village to provide medical care, as many medical conditions require long-term follow-up or treatment, but at the same time how much you can help with a simple vitamin or ibuprofen,” he says, adding that the people are grateful for whatever he can do to ease their suffering. “The smile you get just for an ibuprofen or a Tylenol –– it’s tough to put a value on it.”
This experience was a life-altering one for Shawn. He witnessed how the rural people of Ladakh lived: experiencing their song and dance traditions; watching them make their hand-woven, vegetable-dyed woolen clothes; and learning how the two-foot-thick walls of their three-story homes, made of mud bricks, would shelter them from the bitterly cold winters that brought snow and ice and blocked the mountain passes. “The resiliency of the people, the subsistence lifestyle, their beautiful smiles, and the lack of waste in their society left me in admiration,” he says. “An extreme locale has seemingly protected these people from vice. They simply worked hard and worked together or they would not survive.”
Shawn returned to the United States and completed his final year in medical school, learned wilderness medicine (a hobby of his) with the Wilderness Medical Society in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee, and traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to study forensic pathology.
“The flood gate had opened and my thirst for travel, learning, and truly experiencing life grew uncontrollably,” Shawn says.
Shawn graduated from UB in 2003, and, inspired by his desire to “unselfishly serve a small community through comprehensive, community-based medicine with continuity for patients,” he pursued a specialty in family medicine at the University of Utah. The program provided strong training in all aspects of the field in an area that was close to the outdoors and the mountains he loved. It also allowed him to satisfy his desire for international travel and he returned to India twice during his residency.
In his final year at the University of Utah, Shawn received an e-mail from an alumnus who was looking for someone to come to Alaska to fill in for him while he continued his studies at Harvard. Shawn jumped at the chance to live in a place where he could fish and enjoy the outdoors. So in September 2006, after graduating, passing his boards and visiting India a fourth time, Shawn headed to Kodiak, Alaska, for his first real job. As a substitute doctor at Kodiak Island Medical Associates Clinic and in the emergency room at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, Vainio practiced the full spectrum of family medicine while enjoying all the outdoor activity that island offered.
But the travel bug called to Vainio again, this time with an opportunity to work at a small U.S. research station in Antarctica. Shawn spent seven months as the sole medical provider for Palmer Station, a place so remote that it is accessible only by boat. Three months out of every year, the accumulation of ice makes even this impossible.
Shawn spent seven months at the station, serving a variety of medical roles for the handful of researchers who lived there. He also treated cruiseship passengers who needed medical attention. When his assignment was over, he and his girlfriend, Annjannette Larsen, a Kodiak native whom Vainio had met just before accepting the position in Antarctica, went to South America. They backpacked through Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, and on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru; tasted the wines of Chile’s Colchagua Valley; spent a week on Easter Island; drove across Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the largest salt flat in the world; took a boat trip through the Bolivian Amazon and Pampas (grasslands); and hiked across the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca.
Then they returned to Kodiak, bought a house and got married. Shawn continues his work in family medicine, seeing a diverse array of patients and treating everything from heart attacks to bear attacks. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he says. “I love the diversity of patients on our island and I thoroughly enjoy obstetrics, pediatrics,adolescent and adult medicine, ER, you name it.”
In spring of 2009, Shawn took advantage of the opportunity to scale Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain peak. An experienced climber (he’d already conquered summits in the Western Rockies, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Adirondacks and several 21,000-foot peaks in the Himalayas), he found this climb to be the most challenging. It took several weeks, and his group was stranded for seven days at 14,200 feet while the winds blew at 60-80 mph. Vainio made the most of this time, studying Hindi for an upcoming trip to India. Once the weather cleared, the group continued on its trek and on May 16, 2009, Vainio reached the 20,320-foot summit.
Shawn’s dedication to the Himalayan people continues through his work with the Himalayan Health Center, an offshoot of the organization with which he took his first medical excursion to India. He has taken five trips to India in all, and now teaches the medical students who volunteer and supervises the delivery of medical care. He also serves as a member of the HHC’s advisory panel and board, encouraging other medical professionals to volunteer in assisting the Himalayan people.
What’s next for the doctor and his wife? In the immediate future, it’s a trip to El Salvador and Honduras to visit family and attend a friend’s wedding. After that, the possibilities are endless, but are certain to include global excursions, fishing, climbing mountains, and serving others. As Shawn says, “I try to live my dreams each day … staying in Alaska, serving a community through health and science, with a beautiful, intelligent and talented wife by my side, catching fish and photographing wildlife by foot on the mountains or by kayak on the ocean. Life doesn’t get any better than this.”