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MK Czerwiec: Advice on Graphic Medicine

MK Czerwiec collects, reads, creates, and teaches about graphic medicine comics. She is a co-author of the book Graphic Medicine Manifesto, creator of the graphic memoir Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371, and co-manager of the Graphic Medicine  website. Czerwiec has a BA in English and Philosophy from Loyola University Chicago  and a BSN in Nursing from Rush University. She has an MA in Medical Humanities and Bioethics from Northwestern University-Feinberg School of Medicine.

MKImage courtesy MK Czerwiec

Interview of April 14, 2020

Alexandra Wang: What is graphic medicine?

MK Czerwiec: Graphic medicine is a multifaceted approach depicting health and health care using text and visuals in the form of comics. Graphic medicine is used for reflection, storytelling, and education on illness and caregiving.


Images courtesy MK Czerwiec

Alexandra Wang: You are often referred to as ‘Comic Nurse.” How do you use graphic medicine in your role as a nurse?

MK Czerwiec: Graphic medicine can be used to explain an experience that cannot be expressed in only words. Images can show what and how a person is thinking at a key moment.

Graphic medicine can be used to explain an experience that cannot be expressed in only words.

Alexandra Wang: What inspired you to pursue graphic medicine?

MK Czerwiec: My experiences as an AIDS nurse inspired me to go into graphic medicine. Initially, I did not intend to write about my experiences as a comic. I tried journaling and painting.  But I realized a combination of words and pictures allowed me to articulate my thoughts more fully and completely.

Alexandra Wang: Tell me about your graphic memoir, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Unit 371.

TT 1Image courtesy MK Czerwiec

MK Czerwiec: Taking Turns was supposed to be a historical novel of HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 at Illinois Masonic Hospital. It is based on an oral history project of patients. There was a divide between the medical professionals and patients at the time. My graphic memoir helped me to connect to the patients, families, and staff members. The graphic memoir format gave me a lot of freedom because I could switch between words and images for scenes.

My graphic memoir helped me to connect to the patients, families, and staff members.

Alexandra Wang: What is the significance of the title Taking Turns?

MK Czerwiec: It is part of a quote from a doctor who worked at HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. This doctor stressed empathy and explained that, “We are all just people taking turns being sick. I may be the nurse or doctor today, but I could be the patient tomorrow.”  As medical professionals, we should remember that we could be patients tomorrow. This proved to be true as it happened to some of us. In this book, I tell the story of this care unit. We literally took turns being sick.

As medical professionals, we should remember that we could be patients tomorrow.

TT 2Image courtesy MK Czerwiec

Alexandra Wang: What are some of the graphic novels that have inspired your own work?

MK Czerwiec: Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, was a big influence. The author interviews his father about his experiences during the Holocaust and tells his story through pictures. The novel takes on a serious subject in a cute way by depicting the characters as animals.

MausImage courtesy Art Spiegleman

Alexandra Wang: How about graphic medicine specifically?

MK Czerwiec: Brian Fies’s graphic novel, Mom’s Cancer, is a significant and formative influence. It is about his mother’s metastatic lung cancer and the ways in which it affects the family. Readers learn about how patients and their families are affected by illnesses and health care. Fies portrays this beautifully.

MCImage courtesy Brian Fies

Alexandra Wang: Tell me about the Graphic Medicine  website.

MK Czerwiec: We are an international community, in which, people share present ideas on graphic medicine with one another. Our website serves as a resource for graphic medicine. There are comics, articles, and podcasts about graphic medicine. We also have annual conferences and online events for graphic medicine. Right now, we have an online event, called “Drawing Together.” Since quarantines and stay-at-home orders have begun due to COVID-19, people who draw comics from our community have been meeting on Zoom to do drawing exercises. Members of the Graphic Medicine International Collective have taken turns leading the sessions. We have had some wonderful experiences of drawing together, and sharing comics with people from around the world.


Image courtesy

Alexandra Wang: How can graphic medicine be helpful during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

MK Czerwiec: We have been collecting and curating comics about COVID-19 on our website. There are comics from patients, medical professionals, and spectators. The comics have been organized into six categories: educational, ethics, comics by care providers, comics by patients, humor/coping, and historic. They can be found under COVID-19 Comics. We can bear witness to the COVID-19 Pandemic by making comics about it. Comics can be historical narratives. Readers can learn about COVID-19 this way. People use humor as a coping mechanism. Comics help viewers to understand the experiences of having COVID-19 or providing care for patients. It also serves as a guide on ethical considerations for health care.

We can bear witness to the COVID-19 Pandemic by making comics about it.

Alexandra Wang: What would be your advice for people who are afraid to draw, because they lack the skill?

MK Czerwiec: Keep drawing. Be nice to your drawing. Think of your drawing as a historical document of your own life.

Alexandra Wang: You mentioned that comics make subjects accessible to artists and viewers. How can they help people with disabilities?

MK Czerwiec: At graphic medicine conferences and other events, some participants have disabilities. I have found that comics can be a mode of communication for people with disabilities, for example, people who have communication disorders. People who are hearing impaired can have Sign Language interpreters to translate for them, if necessary. People with visual or mobility impairments can certainly make comics. Adaptive technology should be available to people who need it.

Disabilities do not prevent people from making comics. Graphic medicine is heavily influenced by Disability Studies.  It is important to read narratives by people with disabilities.

adaptive technologies

Image courtesy Brandie Osborn’s Powerpoint Presentation on Assistive Technology and Adaptive Technology on SlidePlayer

Alexandra Wang: What changes in graphic medicine would you like to see?

MK Czerwiec:  I hope to see more diversity in graphic medicine. I would like to see more representation of authors from marginalized communities, as well as other cultures. Diversity and inclusion would allow more voices to be heard in graphic medicine.

DiversityImage courtesy Westside Regional Center

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