Physician of the Year 2022

Shawn Vainio Head Shot

** Major portions of this article are “Used with the permission of Niagara University. written by Lisa McMahon”

Shawn Vainio, MD, FAAFP,  was named 2022 Family Physician of the Year for Alaska.  He lives in Girdwood and works in Bethel for Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

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, 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.”

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 returned to Kodiak, Alaska after completing his assignment in Antarctica and practiced full spectrum family medicine in Kodiak from 2008-2015.  He then took a travel job in Southeast Alaska, Washington and Oregon, serving rural communities through full spectrum family medicine.  Since the end of 2017, Vainio has committed himself to the Native People of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska, providing emergency, inpatient and obstetrical services to the population of predominantly Yupik and Cupik Native Alaskans.

Despite the changes in employment since residency on the home front, Shawn’s dedication to the Himalayan people continues through his work with the Himalayan Health Exchange on a nearly annual basis.  One month each year is dedicated to serving the people of the Indian Transhimalaya while teaching medical students, residents and other medical professionals who join the team of 20-30 about topics in global and wilderness medicine.  He has been on fifteen trips to the Indian Transhimalaya in the last twenty years, and now leads the expeditions and supervises the delivery of medical care. He also serves as a member of the HHE’s advisory panel, encouraging other medical professionals to volunteer in assisting the Himalayan people.

You can check out a YouTube presentation for the Global Organization on Wilderness Medical Education by Dr Vainio, by clicking the following link:

Humanitarian Medicine – YouTube  (Please skip the first 12 minutes due to technical difficulties)

3/6/2023 Updated

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