Comic relief

by Tripp Underwood on August 30, 2010

med book

Medical terminology can be confusing for many patients, especially children.

Have you ever suffered a medical nightmare like this?

“Patient displays an acute communicable disease with an incubation period of 2 or 3 weeks and caused by herpesvirus, usually found in children. Manifestations include coryza, fever, malaise, and headache, followed in 2 or 3 days by the eruption of macular vesicles.”

Chances are you have. The above paragraph is just a complicated description of a common childhood virus: chicken pox. In most cases doctors are happy to act as medical translators for their patients— explaining complicated medical terminology in every day language— but when it comes to written material, many medical publications rely heavily on industry jargon. It can be intimidating and confusing to patients, especially kids.

“When you’re a patient, you have to go through so many tests and have all these technical terms thrown at you,” says Rebekah Klaver, 14, a patient at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center. “It’s hard to not to feel like a medical guinea pig sometimes.”

But Klaver’s doctor, Athos Bousvaros, MD, MPH, associate director of Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, has a unique way of making medical literature less confusing for his young patients: he gives them comic books.

Last year Children’s released “Amy Goes Gluten Free: a young person’s guide to celiac disease,” a comic book designed by Bousvaros and Alan Leichtner, MD, to be both entertaining and full of practical, easy-to-understand information on celiac disease and its treatment at Children’s.

Cover of Amy goes Gluten free

Cover of Amy goes gluten free

“Dr. B’s comic books are great for kids because they explain what’s happening to you, but they’re also comics which kids like to read and the writing makes sense,” says Klaver. “It’s not a big guidebook on how to deal with your celiac or Crohn’s. It’s just a fun comic book that explains things clearly.”

Bousvaros first had the idea to use comics to reach his young patients a few years ago, when he found that much of the written material he had on intestinal disorders were aimed at an adult audience, even though his practice focused on children. “I spent a great deal of time talking with parents, while the kids just sat there,” he says from his office adorned with framed pictures of Captain America, Scooby-Doo and Iron Man. “I tried to engage the kids to make sure they knew what was going on, but when it came to providing written material for them, everything was written by adults for adults, and kids didn’t have anything to take home that explained things at their level.”

At the same time, in his own home, it was clear Bousvaros’s 5 year-old son had inherited his father’s life long love for comic characters, especially a perpetually hungry Great Dane named Scooby. Father and son read Scooby-Doo comics together, and admired the work of one the book’s main illustrators, Joe Staton, a longtime comic artist whom Bousvaros had watched for years. In appreciation of Staton’s work, Bousvaros wrote a letter to The Comic Buyer’s Guide, suggesting parents of young comic readers check out the great art Staton was creating. Moved by the doctor’s words, Staton wrote Bousvaros a thank you letter and an ongoing correspondence ensued.

Inspired by his blossoming friendship with Staton and frustrated by the lack of age-appropriate reading material available to kids with intestinal diseases, Bousvaros decided to combine his two passions—his career in pediatric gastroenterology and comic books—and create a comic aimed at young people with inflammatory bowel disease that could explain how the condition was effecting them, in a format they were familiar with.

Bousvaros enlisted Staton to illustrate the book, and reached out to colleagues in the medical field and released ‘Pete Learns All About Crohn’s and Colitis,’ via the Chrohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

Impressed by the educational merit and wide appeal the book, Dr. Leichtner, director of Children’s Center for Celiac Disease, approached Bousvaros about creating a comic book specific to Children’s program for treating kids with celiac.

Dr. Bousvaros in his office

Dr. Bousvaros in his office

The result was ‘Amy Goes Gluten Free.’ Amy, the comic’s protagonist, is nervous about how celiac disease and a gluten free diet will change her everyday life. But thanks a group of characters who teach her the facts about celiac (and some detective work by GF Holmes, an imaginary sleuth who helps her find gluten hidden in food) Amy learns that life after celiac diagnosis is perfectly normal.

Using comics as teaching tool may sound novel to some, but Bousvaros feels it’s a natural progression for the medium, which has grown and matured a great deal in the past two decades. “The attitude about comics has changed. Today you can find comics in libraries, they’ve won Pulitzer prizes, even the New York Times bestseller list has a category for graphic novels,” he says. “Like all forms of entertainment, there are good comics and bad comics, but something that is well-written, well-drawn and crafted with care has the opportunity to reach a lot of people, and in this case, help them as well.”

Dr. Bousvaros isn’t the first person to combine Children’s care with comics. Check out these old comic strips from the Children’s archives.

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