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What Cartooning Peoples’ Stories Taught This Doctor

After 3 months as a newly minted doctor, I knew that any plan that I made for my first vacation week would be futile in the context of COVID-19, so I attempted an escape into the headspace of others. During my first day on vacation, I asked my Twitter community to share the following post widely:

Since high school, I’d been drawing comics, and I had published over a hundred comic strips to my college newspaper. I continued to cartoon during medical school and residency to document some of the many absurdities that I’d encountered during my medical training. What I lacked in technical skill or talent in drawing, I made up in my familiarity with the medium, and it was within this framework that I sought to share other people’s stories in medicine.

I received dozens of submissions from medical students, physicians, nurses, and patients. Within my allotted week, I drew six cartoons. One comic featured a nurse’s story of meeting a distraught woman who had tracked her husband’s location with a phone app, only to end up in front of a door to the morgue.

Another described how a cancer patient, happy with her breast reconstruction, flashed an unwitting clinical researcher with her “new babies.” I sought to incorporate a wide range of emotions, from the macabre to the hopeful, to acknowledge the range of experiences of those whose lives touched upon medicine, either voluntarily (healthcare workers) or involuntarily (patients).

I sent off a draft of each cartoon to those who had pitched the idea to incorporate their feedback and posted the final pieces on Twitter.

My cartoon experiment — a project conceived out of boredom and curiosity — confirmed a hypothesis that I had developed during my time in medicine: Everyone is interesting. As written by science fiction author Ted Chiang, “People are made of stories.” While I worked on my comics, every line I inked, every shadow I filled evoked a sense of “sonder” — the wistful realization that others too are living a life as vivid as my own. My readers felt this as well, with one commenting, “Thanks so much for sharing her story so beautifully. Warms my heart, which I need today.”

I think we all need stories today. Sharing our stories has never been more important as we find ourselves bitterly divided at the nexus of a global pandemic, a litany of natural disasters, and in the aftermath of a pugnacious election cycle. Many Americans continue to question others’ rights and dignity, based on their race or place of origin. Facts have failed to persuade and have lost their luster, as once-respected institutions such as academia, the CDC, and even the FDA have been undermined by political machinations.

If anything, one of the few weapons that those of us who advocate for the rights of others have left in their arsenal is stories. This is because human beings are not as rational as we would like to believe. We thrive on individual stories, more so than faceless facts; Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford University, states that individuals remember facts when incorporated into stories “up to 22 times more than facts alone.” This is why a 2015 photo depicting the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who had drowned in an attempt to get to the Greek island of Kos, brought the Syrian refugee crisis sharply in focus and evoked outrage across the world, in a way that graphs and figures depicting the 4 million displaced Syrian lives could not.

The individuals who messaged me didn’t actually need my help in telling their actual stories. Social media has democratized storytelling and has freed stories from the traditional confines of word craft, such as books and articles. However, they needed someone else to acknowledge their experiences and share them with a broader audience. Similarly, to bridge the gap that has torn the U.S. asunder, we need to use our virtual and real-life platforms to uplift stories of the underserved. This could be as easy as sharing another individual’s struggles and experiences. However, our sharing and fellowship shouldn’t be limited to the virtual world. It is up to us to ensure that these stories have a happier ending by taking their lessons to heart into the real world.

Soon I will be back to my day job as a doctor and trade in my drawing tablet for my stethoscope. But through cartoons, I was able to allow myself and others to inhabit a stranger’s perspective, even momentarily. Even in my role as physician, I hope to continue to share others’ stories in visual art or in writ. More than ever, we need stories to remind ourselves that our lives and futures are entwined together.

Yoo Jung Kim, MD, is a medical intern and coauthor of What Every Science Student Should Know.

This post appeared on KevinMD.