In 1993, two years before the peak of AIDS-related deaths, hospitals were flooded with patients. Rooms were full, people were dying and nurses were stressed. In the halls of HIV/AIDS care unit 371, one nurse was a cartoonist.
MK Czerwiec didn’t always know she was going to be a cartoonist. In 1993, she had no idea she would draw cartoons for a living. For a while, she wanted to be a writer. Then she wanted to be a nurse. Then she was a nurse.
Now Czerwiec goes by the title of ComicNurse, and she has pioneered an entire subgenre of the health humanities called graphic medicine.
“It started with using comic-making as a way to cope when I was a nurse during the AIDS crisis in Chicago,” Czerwiec said.
Along with publishing her own graphic novels and editing anthologies of medical comics, Czerwiec also was a contributor to the Graphic Medicine Manifesto.
Before we spoke, I sat in on a class where Czerwiec was guest teaching. She was at the head of the table in a pink sweater, matching the color her comic avatar usually wears. Czerwiec had the students draw a simple comic related to a clinical encounter, and the results were personal, sometimes sad and often funny.
Czerwiec explained how this exercise shows the array of valuable uses comics can have.
“Comics can do really powerful, serious work,” Czerwiec said.
To her medical humanities students at Northwestern University, for example, comics can have a surprisingly important impact.
Czerwiec explained that the ill have never controlled the narrative in medical history. Medical journals and literature have always been written by doctors, for doctors. Czerwiec, who is now the comics editor for the journal Literature and Medicine, is changing that.
“Each panel in a comic is an insight into the patient’s experience,” Czerwiec said. “We can learn so much from that.”
Czerwiec’s path from caregiver to cartoonist was circuitous and not without hardship. The first pages of Czerwiec’s graphic novel, “Taking Turns – Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371”, show Czerwiec in some of her first days in nursing.
She sees a patient and is reminded of her recently deceased father, who she took care of until his final day. She wants to quit nursing because she is constantly reminded of her dad.
From there, Czerwiec was transferred to a unit specifically for AIDS where the patients were so much younger than her father and she was able to continue working. Her experiences here would be the basis for some of her first comics and her first graphic novel.
Later on, Czerwiec would connect with another medical cartoonist, Ian Williams, and establish a website, graphicmedicine.org, to catalog and explore comics and healthcare. Williams and Czerwiec would also go on to create the annual Graphic Medicine Conference. The conference will meet in Chicago, Czerwiec’s hometown, this summer.
Czerwiec spoke in Albion on Thursday for the Anna Howard Shaw Keynote Address, focusing on the impact that comics can have on both the cartoonist and the reader. She challenged everyone to draw their own comics as a way of self-care and reflection.
“Anyone can draw,” Czerwiec said as she shared touching comics from her medical students.
One comic, done amateurishly in crayon, was a familiar scene: a waiting room, a patient, and a doctor. The lines were scribbles in purple and orange and the stick figures were misshapen, but the image was clear. It showed a doctor wrapping their arm around a crying patient, hugging them in a time of sadness.
Czerwiec showed that it is not the quality of the drawing that makes a great comic great; it is the appeal to humanity that makes the impact.
“That’s a way that you cope,” Czerwiec said. “Drawing is a way of thinking. Drawing is a way of knowing.”