Werewolves, Skeletons and Other Monsters: Jefferson Med. Students Learn Empathy Through Comics

A new Graphic Medicine course helps students hone their observational and interpersonal skills by having them create graphic novels.

Jefferson University medical students are hanging up their stethoscopes and picking up their sketchbooks this summer.

The school’s new graphic medicine course has students creating comic strips to improve their attention to detail and ability to communicate with patients.

Laura Ayd, a Jefferson student, drew this comic as part of the school's new Graphic Medicine course.

“The crux of the course is teaching observation and hoping that through that empathy grows,” Christian Patchell, the course’s instructor, said. “I’ve noticed that when someone’s hands are active and creating, they’re more likely to have a personal conversation with you.”

Jefferson Medical student Magumi Tsuda sketches a cartoon depicting the perspective of medical school students.

Patchell saw the different ways art can help bring out compassion in students throughout the course. In one lesson, he allowed students to ask him about his own experiences with tongue cancer, which he documented using werewolves and other monsters to represent his treatments in the graphic novel “I Put the Can in Cancer.” 

“At first they asked the questions they were taught to ask,” Patchell said. “They asked about my profile, if I was a smoker.”

The lesson continued and, as the students worked on their sketches, the questions they asked began to change.

“They asked things like, ‘what could have made your experience better?’ No one had asked me that before,” Patchell said.

Throughout the course students worked on different assignments, including exercises in autobiographical and patient-perspective cartooning. The autobiographical sketches helped Patchell learn more about his students.

“I went in not knowing what inspires a doctor or a nurse to study medicine and they all had these really great stories,” he said.

Students kept a journal and a sketch book for the course where they were encourage to write and draw regularly. Michelle Konkoly shared photos in hers.

While many of the student’s assignments are focused on the students and their future patients, others allow them to have a bit more fun. For one assignment, students based their work off of designs by the cartoonist Michael Paulus who draws popular cartoon characters as skeletons.

A skeleton sketch of a cartoon character by Magumi Tsuda from one of the course's lessons.

Patchell also brought Star Wars figurines to class for students to use as cartoon models of the human form.

“You have not lived until you’ve had medical students playing with your Star Wars toys,” he said.

The course, which will be offered again in the fall, is part of a 2017 redesign of Jefferson’s medical curriculum. The new curriculum, known as JeffMD, integrates required courses in the arts and humanities to help doctors develop the empathy they need to better understand what their patients are experiencing. JeffMD is the first major redesign of Jefferson’s medical program in nearly 100 years.

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