Graphic Medicine Draws Together Health and Humanities

Graphic Medicine Exhibition at Duke

Omar Khan and Kelsey Graywill stand in front of the gallery. Courtesy of Kelsey Graywill.

As an emerging national movement in the health humanities, graphic medicine explores how people can use silly things to understand serious things through a combination of comics and medicine.

The movement recently made its way to Duke in the form of an exhibition in the Louise Jones Brown Gallery of the Bryan Student Center, organized and curated Omar Khan, T’19 and Kelsey Graywill, T’18. The first of its kind at Duke, Graphic Medicine showcased the work of faculty and students.


Reflections by Kelsey Graywill and Omar Khan:

Creating Comic Relief

Comics, often encountered in the form of newspaper strips or superhero stories, are a medium with unique potential to engage audiences and explore stories by using both text and visuals. The rise of graphic novels helped elevate comics to an academic status, and in doing so, opened the door for comics to subvert the high-brow nature of academia with a form of expression that is accessible to a wider audience while maintaining robust depth and quality. In graphic medicine, comics act as a creative space to explore what are often deeply felt and complicated dynamics between patients, providers, disease, and health systems.

Image by Luke Evans for DUU VisArts.

For the Graphic Medicine exhibition, we lined the walls of the Louise Jones Brown Gallery with single panel and short comic strips from over ten different Duke-affiliated individuals. Many of the comics featured were products of the Graphic Medicine class that we taught as a half-credit university House Course led by and for undergraduates in their dormitories. Other comics came from participants of Duke’s arts and humanities pre-med program, known as Reimagine Medicine. More submissions came from Story+, the Duke Hospital, and the Duke Medical School. With such a variety of perspectives at the table, it wasn’t rare to see someone tear up on one side of the gallery and then start giggling on the other side. That’s the beautiful thing about the comic art form: it often shatters our expectations. Graphic Medicine was proof that comics can hold weight of both tragedy and comedy.

Learn more about the Reimagine Medicine project

Elucidating Complex Medical Narratives

Graphic medicine forces us to expand our awareness of a patient’s story. In our own world, physicians are the heroes and main characters—but in a patient’s world, we might be the disruptors, present only when they break their leg, find a lump in their breast, or have an ache in their chest. If the exam room is the middle of a story, the panels that come before and after are what comics ask us to explore. The stories found inside the gallery took place inside waiting rooms and surgical theaters, but they also took place in schools and homes. They brought the audience into self-contained worlds, some real and others fictional.

Image by Luke Evans for DUU VisArts.

Comic art gives the discipline of medicine a chance to remedy pressing issues like physician burnout and lack of holistic patient wellness. Each comic spoke to a difficult truth in medicine, whether by poking fun at the healthcare system in the U.S. or by portraying the process of recovery, loss, or healing. Some comics undercut stereotypes in subtle ways. One panel shows a woman as a neurosurgeon and another with a black man as physician. Others attempted to destigmatize taking medication to treat mental illness, while others spoke to the lived experiences of patients, often regarding concerns of being dismissed by healthcare providers. The gallery also shed light on a wide spectrum of conditions: depression, HIV/AIDS, wisdom teeth removal, bipolar disorder, alcohol addiction, ovarian torsion, sexual health, and cancer. Using simple forms, color and text as a vessel, each piece delivered an important message about modern medicine. At the same time, the gallery was not just a critique on healthcare, but a refuge of sorts for everyone—past, present and future patient—to see themselves reflected in a visual narrative. Because we all experience illness in our lifetimes, visible or not, graphic medicine is a movement for everyone.

An abridged version of Graphic Medicine will be displayed in the Duke Wellness Center Gallery in April 2019.

The Graphic Medicine Gallery in the Louise Jones Brown Gallery was on display from January to February in the Bryan Student Center and was sponsored by DUU VisArts. Photo by Luke Evans for DUU VisArts.

Kelsey Graywill is an aspiring physician and Duke alumna, T’18, who graduated with a degree of her own creation, entitled “Human Creativity: Evolutionary Neuroaesthetics.” She currently splits her time between learning languages, working on her startup—a coloring book company—and preparing for an upcoming art project residency at the Rubenstein Arts Center. She is the co-teacher for the house course on graphic medicine at Duke and a lecturer for the graphic medicine component of Reimagine Medicine.

Omar Khan is a Trinity senior majoring in Public Policy and Global Health who plans to pursue a career in health management. He spends his time building community on campus as a former RA, class president, and president of a living group. He is the co-teacher for the house course on graphic medicine at Duke and a lecturer for the graphic medicine component of Reimagine Medicine.