By Emma Nolan
Image by MK Czerwiec.
Bedside manner is an important skill when treating patients. If you are sick and your doctor has a callous approach to telling you your test results, that attitude may make you feel like just another lab report, not a person whom they truly want to see recover.
Though the patients tend to view their health care providers as disinterested, doctors themselves may actually be nervous when speaking with them — fostering a mutual discomfort that results in the stilted, cold discourse which occurs in medical offices.
Former HIV/AIDS nurse, graphic designer, and founder of Comicnurse.com, MK Czerwiec has taken to creating simple comic strips to effectively illustrate dialogue between caretakers and patients.
“It allows a good outlet for humour and kind of self-expression at times when it could seem insensitive or difficult to express otherwise,” MK Czerwiec, aka the Comic Nurse, told BBC News.
In a recent interview with BTR, Czerwiec explains that various dynamics of “patient encounters” can be more accurately portrayed through the medium of illustration in comic strip style, allowing for “non-verbal aspects of the encounter to be reflected upon.”
Drawing the characters in the comic strips allows the illustrator to further reflect upon the body language of both parties. The experience of recreating the doctor-patient dialogue while sketching their physical composure offers the illustrator a different perspective that helps them better understand how each person felt about their encounter.
“That kind of focus and representation can lead to an enhanced understanding of their strengths and challenges, view the patient encounter from a perspective other than their own, and perhaps create opportunities to approach situations differently,” Czerwiec tells BTR.
For years, Czerwiec says, many unassociated health care professionals (and their patients) around the world had been creating graphic novels and comic art to express their medical encounters. A community only formed in 2010 when these creative individuals began meeting at annual conferences.
Future doctors are learning the skill, too. Czerwiec, after finishing her Masters in Medical Humanities five years ago, began teaching a seminar for medical students on how to use comic-making as a reflective tool.
“My medical students report that, as they enter their new role as doctor — which is a very challenging thing to do — drawing the clinical encounter helps them identify the most difficult aspects,” she says.
But drawing comics helps medical students reflect upon their anxieties and what causes them. Czerwiec brings up an example where her student drew a door to a patient exam room, which represented his nervousness in entering a situation where he feared he would be unable to help the patient. Another student simply drew a patient’s hands, and expressed how when she encounters patients, she sometimes becomes so anxious that she focuses on their hands. Someone else depicted the doctor and patient with a giant elephant in the room, symbolizing the obvious concerns that both individuals harbor, yet ignore and avoid.
“For me, a nurse who makes comics, I know the benefits of reflecting on patient encounters, and my role in them, by drawing comics,” she says.
As for patients, Czerwiec describes that “often they want to tell their story, to assemble it, and help them understand what their illness means in their lives, and how they will find meaning in their lives in light of their illness. One workshop participant said that she was inspired to make her family a comic about her cancer to show them that she ‘is okay’ because they are always so worried about her.”
Patients have let Czerwiec know that creating comics about their illness provides them with a method of reflection and communication.
Even if doctors or patients do not wish to create medical comics themselves, Czerwiec explains that reading others’ published comics or graphic novels can offer great insight for understanding the lived experience of illness in ways they may not have thus considered. She recommends reading graphic novels like Mom’s Cancer or Monsters.
There are also many comic selections cataloged online at GraphicMedicine.org, a website MK Czerwiec co-runs with Dr. Ian Williams.
Comic strips created and read by doctors and patients encourage a meaningful, well-rounded medical discourse that enables a greater understanding and a learning experience between both sides of the story. This niche of graphic literature offers many avenues for medical professionals, patients, their loved ones, and anyone else interested to better comprehend the dynamics and intricacies of these human interactions.