Last Spring, I participated in a one-hour workshop at a medical humanities conference attended by sociologists, clinicians, researchers, healthcare leaders, or a hybrid thereof. The workshop leader, a nurse and cartoonist, provided crayons and paper, and asked us to bring our creativity and open minds. Our only rule to follow was that there was no such thing as having bad drawing skills.
The first task: “Draw your own portrait.” After five minutes of drawing, participants shared their self-portraits as introductions. Some were impressive, true-to-life images, with shadowing in the right places, perhaps showing the participant engaging in a favorite hobby. Others were more amateur - like mine! - which I exhibited, like the child I felt like in that moment, greeting my peers proudly with my cartoonish drawing.
Next task: “Draw a picture of a doctor-patient encounter.” This was more challenging. Would the doctor be breaking bad news? Engaging in shared decision making? Carefully examining the patient, engaging in a therapeutic ritual of healing? Or distracted by a computer, a pager or the latest trendy technological gadget?
Graphic medicine, the focus of this workshop, uses the medium of drawing or cartooning as a visual, and is used most often in both patient education and medical education. Additionally, graphic stories, or comics, can illustrate a lived experience by the artist: a patient experiencing illness, a doctor-in-training coping with the stresses of residency, or a nurse reflecting on caring for vulnerable patients. The possibilities are limitless because our life experiences, associated memories and emotions, intent in drawing the story, and drawing skill and media used all vary widely.
In a graphic medicine book I recently read about reproduction, some stories were humorous, while others were profoundly heartbreaking. Still others illustrated the experience of reproduction for non-binary gender minorities. Here, seeing is being efficiently placed squarely into the artists’ shoes. Reading such graphic stories is paradoxically complex and simple: the sense experiences and messages can be heavy, yet the medium deceivingly straightforward (consider crayons on paper).
Graphic medicine can be deeply expressive and is a worthwhile exploration for patients and clinicians at any stage.
Tiffany I. Leung. Assistant Professor at FHML and PhD Candidate at Caphri