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I'm Cathy Leamy, a Boston cartoonist and medical writer. Check out my comics! They're mainly about health care and autobio stories.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

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Comics and Medicine 2012 conference

It’s the Comics & Medicine conference again!

That’s right! Remember last year when I attended an academic conference in Chicago on comics and medicine? Well, the momentum keeps on going - the third annual conference was held this year in Toronto! More attendees, more discussion panels, and more events! The 2011 gathering completely blew my mind, and I’ve spent the past year in a whirl of projects, processing, spreading the word, and frenzied enthusiasm. I was really looking forward to revisiting this brain space. And this time I’d be talking! At this year’s conference, I was a participant on the "Comics in patient education" panel!

What went on this year?

The two day affair kicked off with a pre-conference reception party and screening/Q&A session of the short documentary The Paper Mirror (no relation to my own short comic of the same title). Like last year, the organizers arranged a gallery-style display of comic art by the conference panelists. My contribution was the anxiety fiesta “The Loop" from issue #6 of my autobio minicomic series Geraniums and Bacon (available for sale online very soon).

Then - day one! Keynote talks by Paul Gravett and Joyce Brabner, followed by panel discussions and workshops, capping off with a casual on-stage Paul Gravett/Joyce Brabner/Joyce Farmer chat at the bar The Central and a trip to the famed comic shop The Beguiling.

And then - day two! More panels and workshops, finishing up with a keynote talk by Joyce Farmer that I sadly missed because I had to catch my plane home. Next time I’m planning my schedule better.

What’s up party people are you ready for a Comics and Patient Education panel YEAHHH

One of the first discussion panels on day one, and I was on it! The other panelists included Lydia Gregg, speaking on a combo comic-and-treatment-diary for pediatric patients with retinoblastoma; Alex Thomas and Gary Ashwal of Booster Shot Comics, walking through the process of their asthma medication awareness comic Iggy and the Inhalers; and Allison Zemek, going into depth on a graphic novel for kids on healthy food choices.

And me? I was up there talking about diabetes ’n’ dicks. OH YEAH.

I’m not kidding. A project I’ve been working on is a diabetes awareness minicomic directed at men, pointing out that one of the conditions that diabetes can cause is erectile dysfunction. This fact really hit home with a lot of my guy friends, so I decided to make a funny comic about it and then do a short survey about its effectiveness as an informative tool. The comic’s goals were to get attention, bring readers up to speed on what diabetes is, and then give them easy next steps for reducing their risk.

The overall panel was absolutely fascinating to me. Despite my project being aimed at a completely different demographic than the other three panelists’, the points made by our talks tended to overlap: Comics are a much more inviting reading format than plain text, facts delivered by our comics tended to stick well in readers’ heads, storytelling and characters can be powerful tools to engage the reader, and so on. I’m really glad to have met the other panelists and to have learned about their projects. I also appreciated getting to snicker about stiffies in front of an academic audience. Man, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself now that I can’t go around saying “Gotta go work on my dick comic!" to everyone.

* Watch this space - I’m planning to post the full comic online and to have print copies for sale at comics festivals this fall!

Other panels and events I liked
Cartoonists Take Up Smoking

Dr. Alan Blum, physician and long-time anti-smoking advocate, took us on a whirlwind historical tour of cartoons/comic books against smoking and the tobacco industry. The one thing that will really stick with me is the effectiveness of humor instead of rage as a weapon against big enemies. Blum quoted Thomas More - “The devil, the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked" - and talked about his group’s successes with parody ads and images. It reminds me of the Fataki campaign in Tanzania - awareness and engagement through poking fun rather than through lecturing or scolding.

Clinical skills, Cancer Vixen, and CanMEDS: The graphic novel in pre-clerkship medical education

Dr. Jim Connor gave this presentation as part of the Comics in Medical Education panel. Excellent example of the power of comics for teaching, engagement, and empathy-building, not just for patients but for anyone in a learning position in medicine.

Use of comics in medical education: Teaching evidence based medicine

Another cool example of using comics as teaching tools, this time from Stefan Tigges of Emory University. He slams together his own funny comics using clip-art, animal characters, pop culture references, and goofy jokes; they serve as supplemental material for his statistics course, helping to defang the intimidating material and present it in a different format. I love this kind of thing! Reminds me of when I used to draw little comics to help teach my teammates back in Academic Decathlon.

A form of comic relief: HIPAA in graphic detail

It’s a follow-up from last year! Back at the 2011 conference, Rose Anderson from the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation presented her brainstorm on translating the standard patient data privacy form (a long, boring, overwhelming “legalese" document) into a comic that patients could easily read and comprehend. Well, she made it happen! This year, she and co-creator Leah Eisenberg talked about the process of drafting prototypes of that comic and getting feedback and reactions from example patients. I can’t wait to see if there’s even more progress next year.

Assorted shout-outs, observations, recommendations

Leading up to this conference, I read Special Exits (semi-autobio about aging parents), and afterwards, I finally got around to reading Cancer Vixen (breast cancer autobio by glam NYC illustrator). Damn, those were some great reads, especially for getting a different perspective. “Oh, huh, I guess I can appreciate why the old guy didn’t call his daughter for help, even if I don’t agree with it." “Hmm, yeah, if I were in her place and dealing with what she’s dealing with, I’d probably make that specific chemo choice too."

Microcosm Publishing plug from Joyce Brabner! They really do have a stupidly huge array of material on health and activism and community. Zinesters are doing it for themselves.

Man, it’s a good thing I decided not to go into academia because I have zero interest in academic jargon. The minute I hear the words "contextualizing" or "engendered," I shut down and beat a hasty retreat to my inner chalet.

The organizers provided swag bags with blank sketchbooks! Absolutely brilliant!

My thoughts and reactions

God, it’s so exciting to see more applied comics, comics actually being used in healthcare settings! I’m a practical person. I don’t want to analyze. I wanna DO. I wanna MAKE STUFF.

But all my Action Jackson aside, I also feel humbled. I left last year’s conference full of piss and vinegar. I was gonna change the world with comics! And it was gonna be so easy - I’d just swan in with the comics and everyone would recognize their usefulness and the road ahead would be strewn with rose petals and SweeTarts. This year, I got to hear reports from other people trying applied comics and some of the obstacles and attitudes they face, especially “Where are the cold hard stats to show that this approach works?" It was a good reality check for me. I haven’t changed my mind; I still know that comics have amazing potential as a tool for health care. But now I have some more appreciation and respect for the work that will need go into establishing them. I can’t just rely on my hyperactive bluster and charm and on individual testimonials in places where evidence-based medicine rules the school.




And hey, lemme tell you some things about Toronto

Hot damn, did I enjoy finally getting a chance to visit this place! I had a blast just haunting the neighborhoods and walking all over. Thumbs up for the HI-Toronto Hostel - very convenient location, loads of activities, nicely reliable wi-fi.

I could’ve just sat in the CN Tower for hours watching planes take off from the Toronto City Airport just across the way. Little toy things going wheeee into the air.

Kensington Market is possibly the coolest neighborhood I have ever visited.

I don’t shop for fun. I’ll walk around shopping areas for hours, but I don’t tend to go in and browse the merchandise. On Queen’s Street, I realized that the only shops I actually do walk into are comic shops, organization shops, and sexuality boutiques.

It’s just maybe kinda sorta slightly possible that Tim Horton’s does a better Boston Creme donut than Dunkin Donuts? oh god dunkie’s i’m so sorry

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