Maggie Hulbert is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Queen’s University
Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371
(Penn State University Press, 2017)
The HIV/AIDS Care Unit (Unit 371) at Chicago’s Illinois Masonic Medical Centre was founded on a heartbreakingly simple observation. “We are all just people taking turns being sick,” stated Dr. David Blatt, one of the founders of Unit 371, in MK Czerwiec’s newest graphic novel — the aptly named Taking Turns: Stories from the HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Czerwiec was a brand-new nursing graduate on 371 during the height of the HIV epidemic, and Taking Turns is in many ways her tribute to the unit’s extraordinary spirit. The intention of the unit was made clear from day one: this would be a place where the most stigmatized and ostracized patients could be cared for with empathy, understanding, and love.
In 2018, this is a refreshing reminder of the goals of patient care. In 1982, before the transmission of HIV was fully understood, it would have been downright revolutionary. Doctors and nurses were encouraged to sit on patients’ beds, spend time with them outside of their shifts, and hold hands. Czerwiec dedicates several panels to the unusual and seemingly unprofessional nature of the healthcare provider-patient relationship. As a medical student, it was jarring to see this kind of bond encouraged on a hospital ward; much like for Czerwiec, there were alarm bells going off in my mind while reading about her burgeoning friendship with a patient. However, it was a refreshing reminder that there is no single right way to heal. Chris Haen, the social worker on the unit, summarized it best when he said, “Boundaries are good, helpful, and important; but they must also be adaptable to the community they serve.”
Taking Turns will move you with its unpretentious commentary on what matters in patient care. Czerwiec explains that one of the most significant lessons she learned as a nursing student was that sometimes there is “little we can do to help, but we should always try.” Later on in the book, she underlines this principle with a story about a dying patient on 371. As the patient was taking his last breaths, his loved ones and the unit staff encouraged him to let go by thanking him for his friendship and his love. This attitude towards death — one of gratitude and love for life — is radical, both within and outside of medicine, and serves as proof that there is always something more we can do.
The root of Taking Turns’ simplicity lies in its medium. Graphic novels in medicine (known as graphic medicine) are a powerful way to show and tell stories. This makes the writing more accessible to a larger audience while also capturing another dimension of what it means to be human. Art provides medicine with an “alternative emotional vocabulary,” stated the art therapist on Unit 371. Taking Turns is a heartrending lesson in compassion which wholly embodies this idea.