Atlanta, GA,
08:27 AM

Illustrating to Inform

Using graphic medicine, Shepherd Center hopes to make health information more accessible in partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology.

While Jessica Callaway, MLIS, AHIP, Shepherd’s clinical research librarian, finds satisfaction in discovering the perfect topical books for patients and families or helping staff with research in Shepherd Center’s Noble Learning Resource Center (NLRC), she also has an unexpected interest: comics. She studied them in college and even wrote her undergraduate thesis on literacy and comics, focusing on Captain America.

“Comics are a great literacy tool,” Callaway explains. “And if you're looking for something that reflects a specific experience you have gone through, you're likely to find something in a comic format that you can relate to. I've always thought that was special.”

So, maybe it’s not surprising that Callaway finds graphic medicine, broadly meaning comics that discuss some aspect of health or healthcare, to be a great combination.

“In the library world, we recognize some people as reluctant readers. And we offer them visually rich content backed by words,” Callaway says. “It also works well for stroke recovery and people relearning how to read. So that's the aspect of graphic medicine that we're using. It’s also a way to reintroduce health topics in an easy-to-understand way, using common language.”

Eager to expand Shepherd’s use of graphic medicine, Callaway contacted Leah Misemer, Ph.D., assistant director of Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) program, who shared Callaway’s interest in the field.

“I wanted to do a project that included other Georgia institutions. I firmly believe the more collaboration, the stronger the goal can be,” Callaway explains.

And that’s how a partnership was born. In the VIP program, Georgia Tech undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from various disciplines work in teams to complete projects over several semesters. Misemer says that the long-term structure of the program makes it ideal for community partnerships like the one formed with Shepherd. And the multidisciplinary approach allows participants to learn from each other, which, Callaway says has additional benefits.

“Students with different perspectives work together, and it really enriches the project.”

After a year of collaborating on what the course should include, they launched the graphic medicine VIP team in the fall semester of 2022, with Misemer as the team leader. The team is creating comics to make health information more engaging and easier to understand.

“I created the graphic medicine VIP team to teach students the value of storytelling and visualization in scientific communication, particularly when they are trying to reach broad audiences,” Misemer says. “The long-term structure of VIP means that the content students produce for Shepherd will have time to go through multiple iterations and user testing, resulting in a high-quality end product.”  

The team is using ideas from Shepherd staff as a starting point for their work. Callaway collected suggestions from staff on important topics to make more accessible for patients, and Misemer narrowed the list to those she felt would be most approachable for students. The students on the graphic medicine VIP team then picked two topics to focus on. This year’s projects include one comic about disability etiquette and another about the inpatient experience at Shepherd. Students interviewed Talbot Kennedy, a former Shepherd patient who now works as a peer liaison at the hospital, to learn more about Shepherd’s unique inpatient experience.

“The comic is about his experience and all the programs he participated in as a patient. And it includes how he ended up working here in peer support. It's his story and the graphic medicine project I'm most excited about this year,” Callaway says.

The 2022-2023 academic year is the first year for the graphic medicine team, but Callaway and Misemer plan on keeping the partnership going and digging deeper into the list of topics Shepherd staff helped develop.

“One of our long-term goals is to turn Shepherd’s instructions and tips for returning home into pictographs because it’s a little bit more eye-catching, holds your attention more, and is easier to understand,” Callaway explains.

This is a win for Shepherd patients and Georgia Tech students.

“Students who took the course this semester said that they valued the partnership with Shepherd because receiving feedback from Jessica and Talbot helped them gain insight into the experiences of the disability community,” Misemer says. “I’m excited to see where the project goes next as we turn our attention toward ways to disseminate the students’ visual communication materials to Shepherd patients.” 

Callaway and Misemer hope the first set of projects will be available to patients, staff, and the community in Spring 2024.

Written by Ruth Underwood

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.