White Coat, Black Art

Students' zombie comics channel the horrors of med school

Dr. Michael Green teaches a comics in medicine course at Penn State College. He says med students create zombie comics as a way of describing the miseries of life as a resident.
Med school turned me into a zombie: a comic created by a medical student at Penn State College of Medicine.

Originally published on April 14, 2018

A sleep-deprived zombie staggers through the blank walls of a hospital.

No, it's not a scene from The Walking Dead. It's a hand-drawn comic describing life as a medical resident created by a fourth-year med student. The comic, and many more like it, was an assignment in a course called Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives, taught at Penn State College of Medicine.  
A medical student's comic shows a dead patient returns to haunt him.

"Comics free students to express themselves in ways they can't otherwise," said Dr. Michael Green, a doctor and bioethicist, who teaches the course.

Green said almost half of all the comics created by med students in the course feature horror and monster themes. In every case, students portray themselves as victims of violence inflicted by monsters. The monsters are almost always their mentors.
A medical student's comic shows the monster of fear creeping up on him.

Horror is a rich world of metaphor, Green toldWhite Coat, Black Arthost, Dr. Brian Goldman.  

Zombie imagery reflects the students' fears and anxieties in the often ruthless medical environment. Students say they feel like zombies: exhausted, mistreated and stripped of human emotions by the demands of their education.

"They're funny images with a little bit of a truth to it or maybe, more than a little bit of a truth," Green said.

Along with colleagues Daniel George and Darryl Wilkinson, Green studied six years of students' comics and compiled their findings in an essay, The Walking Med: Zombies, Comics, and Medical Education.
A mentor eats the head of a med student in a medical student's comic.

In it, they describe how the students see themselves evolving into zombie-like creatures. "In their comics, students pick up on the theme from zombie fiction, frequently referencing the dark epiphanic moments in their training when they realize their detached medical gaze causes them to regard patients as faceless, biological entities stripped of personhood."

"Increasingly, these comics feel like the canary in the coal mine," Green said.
A medical student pictures him/herself drowning in the flood of information they are expected to absorb.

"When I recently asked a group of 24 graduating students how many would elect to attend medical school over again, only a single hand was raised. Students spoke honestly about how the last four years had broken them down."