Review by Julia Brown
As a reader who enjoys both narrative medicine and graphic memoirs, I could not put down Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Penn State University Press, 2017). MK Czerwiec takes her readers for an emotional journey through the height of the 1994 Chicago AIDS epidemic. Czerwiec, a nurse, artist, author and co-curator of GraphicMedicine.org, writes a raw and honest story on the hardships of care (both for the caretakers and patients) that brought me to the brink of tears several times, but never left me feeling hopeless. Information about the AIDS virus and the history of the epidemic, is intertwined with a narrative of personal growth and coping, allowing Taking Turns to both educate and enrapture its readers.
Using her personal experiences in Unit 371, Czerwiec sets out to humanize those with the stigmatized HIV/AIDS virus and to demonstrate the ways in which the act of creating art can be a device for coping with the unmanageable aspects of working or living with an incurable disease. In Unit 371, Czerwiec describes the art room, where patients were able to partake in art therapy:“The art room can offer all of us an alternative emotional vocabulary” (51). Each page of this graphic memoir succeeds in being part of this art therapy practice, providing an alternative emotional vocabulary to the traditional textual narrative. Most panels contain a mixture of words and images that build upon each other’s meaning; some panels only contain a powerful image where words are unnecessary, and others only contain artfully crafted words that paint their own picture.
Taking Turns (p. 45)
To cope with a growing “gulf between [her] life on Unit 371 and [her] life off Unit 371” (47), Czerwiec used art to “form a bridge” between the two halves of her existence (47). Czerwiec skillfully builds a similar bridge between her readers and the AIDS epidemic using the power of art.
Taking Turns (p. 46)
Throughout the novel, Czerwiec emphasizes the difference between being a nurse in other wards versus being a nurse in an AIDS unit. Because of the cultural stigma of HIV/AIDS, Czerwiec’s patients were often ostracized and longed for human contact and compassion, and the unit encouraged staff to form a more personal bond with patients than is typically seen in a hospital. After a frightened patient, Stephen, asks for a hug, Czerwiec writes:
I sat down on his bed and put my arms around him. He leaned his chest toward me. His oxygen mask hissed over my shoulder he smelled of medicine. I felt bone, skin, cloth. Heartbeat. After about ten minutes he said ‘Thank you’ and let me go. I felt silenced, shaken. I felt awe (45).
Czerwiec and Stephen become friends over his stay in Unit 371; however, this emotional connection is accompanied with pain as Stephen’s becomes the first death Czerwiec witnesses.
Later in her time at Unit 371, Czerwiec meets a fellow artist, Tim, when he comes in for a blood transfusion. After Czerwiec attends his art opening, they become fast friends and Tim suggests that they work on a piece together, and also requests she show him how to test his blood sugar. During this demonstration, Tim’s needle sticks Czerwiec. “I felt frightened and also ashamed, as if I had done something terribly wrong,” she explains (83). Through six anxiety-filled weeks, Czerwiec tells as few people as possible about the needle-stick, especially hoping that Tim doesn’t find out. Throughout this turmoil, Czerwiec struggles with the appropriateness of beginning an art project with Tim and recalls one of her mentors saying, “Boundaries also must be adaptable to the needs of the community being served” (91). The two do begin an art piece which Czerwiec must then finish when Tim becomes too sick and eventually passes away.
“371 is something that never goes away. It’s always there” (191).
At the close of Unit 371, Czerwiec turned once again to art to guide her through her memories. When painting alone didn’t help, she began making comic panels. Looking back, “The art room was the heart of the unit, a place where possibility, maybe even joy, could still show up, maybe make something” (48). Taking Turns is the perfect example of a place where possibility and joy did show up to make something hopeful out of a seemingly hopeless situation and will appeal to readers of graphic novels, medical memoirs and anyone interested in the AIDS epidemic.
Julia Brown has her master’s degree in English with a focus on medical humanities and medical writing from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is currently writing freelance and teaching writing and literature at Queensborough Community College and City College in New York.