MK Czerwiec's comic avatar stands in a hospital hallway

A Conversation About Graphic Medicine

On March 1, 2018, at 2:00 PM ET in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine, NLM Director Patricia Brennan, RN, PhD will host “A Conversation About Graphic Medicine” with pioneers from this emerging genre of literature that combines the art of comics and the personal illness narrative. In addition to graphic medicine authors Ellen Forney and Michael Green, MS, MD, Dr. Brennan will be joined by MK Czerwiec, RN, MA, Artist-in-Residence at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, author of the graphic memoir Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371, co-author of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and co-manager of GraphicMedicine.org. Currently, she is helping orgnanize Comics and Medicine: The Way We Work, an annual conference to be held in Vermont in August. Today we hear from Ms. Czerwiec about her work and graphic medicine.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

MK Headshot UpdatedMK Czerwiec: I’m from Chicago, born and raised. My clinical nursing experience is in HIV/AIDS care and then hospice care. Currently I work in a few non-clinical arenas—all focused on graphic medicine. I teach a seminar for first and second year medical students at Northwestern, as well as guest lecturing at several Chicago universities.  My work also affords me the opportunity to travel frequently, giving lectures and workshops on graphic medicine.  With Ian Williams, I co-run the graphic medicine website and social media presence. I also help organize the annual conferences, and work with cartoonists, students, and clinicians, advising them on individual graphic medicine-related projects. When I’m not doing all that, I make my own comics, which focus on health, illness, and caregiving. My typical workday, when not traveling, usually consists of going to the gym, then responding to many emails, doing a conference call or two, posting great stuff to our graphic medicine social media outlets, walking the dog, and drawing some comics.

CN: Do you see a relationship between online mediums, like blogs and web comics, and printed works? What drives the production of the book format for these medical narratives?

MC: There is absolutely a relationship between online comics and printed comics. The many, varied online outlets where comics can be posted and shared allow creators to find an audience, expose their work widely, I’ve even seen some creators crowdsource research and editing online toward a final comic product. Creators are also able to gauge interest in their work, and develop bodies of work that will resonate with readers. Often these are the works that then are shepherded into book-length projects.

MK Czerwiec's comic avatar stands in a hospital hallway
Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371
by MK Czerwiec

CN: You co-run the Graphic Medicine website and participate in the yearly Comics and Medicine Conference. How does the global graphic medicine community help the field to grow, both in reach and artistically?

MC: The global graphic medicine community brings their work to our annual conferences, presents it, listens to other presentations, networks with participants, and often this results in improved work and future collaborations. Seeing the diversity of the work being presented often results in widening the scope and possibility of our own work. Participants often report being inspired by the work of others, deepening their own. These connections, collaborations, and inspirations frequently continue throughout the year via our active social media community, primarily on Facebook where we have nearly 5,000 active participants from 45 countries.

MK talks to her colleague about a patient who'd recently died
From Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by MK Czerwiec

CN: How can graphic medicine help improve patient care?

MC: Graphic medicine can help improve patient care in several important ways. Comics are great patient and practitioner education tools.  Comics are highly effective at conveying information when there is a high density of that information, a high level of importance to the information, and people are under stress. Comics can help caregivers to better understand our patients by giving us a window into the full lived experience of their illness and caregiving. Comics by patients and caregivers show us things we may not otherwise see—like struggles at home, an illness’s impact on family, the ways in which our efforts to help may not be effective. Seeing ourselves and the impact of our actions in these graphic pathographies can allow us to critique our own practice and improve care. In addition, the medium of comics has unique tools, conventions, and traditions that can contribute to understanding of complex care situations. In a comic about a clinical encounter for example, we can see the frequent contrast between a speech bubble (what is being said) and a thought bubble (what is on the mind but not being said) on both the patient and practitioner’s part. These kinds of comics are often quite revealing. Finally, making comics is a unique way to help patients and practitioners reflect on their experiences with health, illness, and caregiving, hopefully yielding important insights.

The NLM exhibition Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn! will be on display in the NLM History of Medicine Division Reading Room from January 30, 2018 to January 3, 2019. The online adaptation allows visitors to explore the books and artwork contained in the special display, as well as additional graphic medicine works from the NLM collection accompanied by links to more health information from MedlinePlus, the NLM’s consumer health website. Graphic Medicine online features a selection of educational resources, including a K-12 lesson plan and a university module that foster visual literacy and challenge students to try their hands at creating graphic medicine. The traveling banner adaptation will be traveling to 50 sites across the country over the next four years. Please visit the Traveling Exhibition Services website and find this exhibition near you.

“A Conversation About Graphic Medicine” is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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