Pritzker student Shirlene Obuobi takes a comic approach to medical school.
In ShirlyWhirl, M.D., a comic drawn by fourth-year Pritzker student Shirlene Obuobi, an autobiographical doctor in training navigates the pressures of medical school, universal ones and those that especially affect traditionally underrepresented students. The comics address serious issues with unflagging levity and have a following of medical students around the country. “The most fun,” she says, is “when people tag their friends and say ‘that’s me.’”
Obuobi was born in Ghana, her family moving to the United States when she was 6. She spent part of her childhood in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis. She plans a residency in internal medicine. The Magazine spoke to Obuobi about Shirly Whirly, M.D., balancing art and rounds, and her future plans.
This interview has been edited and adapted.
When did you start drawing?
I was definitely a doodler as a kid. I didn’t really start drawing comics specifically until high school, when I drew a strip for the high school newspaper. Then in college I actually had a little comic drawing club called KaPOW that I think still exists. I look them up every now and then. We got people who love to write and people who love to draw together and tried to make little graphic novellas.
When I came to med school, the comics went the way of those experiences. I was initially only sharing them with my classmates. After a little while my roommate was like, you should make this into something available for everyone.
The comics are very honest about how medical school is experienced by women and people of color.
I was pretty intentional about making the main character me, and making her a woman and black. Part of the intention of that was to humanize the profession, in general, and humanize the experience. So I have things that everybody can relate to strongly, regardless of background and identity. And I have things that might be relatable if you’re from my background but might open your eyes if you’re not. Those are things I plan on going into even more as the comic goes on. I want people to talk and share experiences, while maintaining the levity of the page.
Have your readers done that?
For sure. Now my classmates are a pretty small proportion of my regular viewers. They can tell me in person what they think—and they do on a frequent basis. It’s been interesting to see how other people who go to other med schools interact with it.
How did you get interested in medicine?
I have a pretty boring origin story. Basically, my mom is a doctor, so I grew up in a culture of medicine. Something like 50 percent of med students have a doctor parent. I think it was always at the back of my mind that it was something I could want to do. When I got a little bit older, it was the typical “I want to do something that helps people,” make a direct impact. The other part of it is that I really like talking to people, and talking to them day to day. When I thought about my job in the future I tried the whole sitting at a desk thing and it wasn’t my thing. I like to be on my feet and talking and thinking things out loud. So it kind of just fit.
Will you continue the comic as you move on to your residency next year?
Yes. There’s a whole field that I didn’t know about until recently called graphic medicine [that uses comics for medical education and patient care]. Physicians and health care workers, and I think a few nurses and physician assistants, are involved. They translate their experiences and experiences of others, even patient experiences, through comics. It’s a medium where you can communicate a lot, not just through words but through visual things, and it’s also really accessible for a lot of people. Not everyone wants to sit down for six hours and read a book on something. You can get a lot of emotion and visual information from a comic.
Now that you’re in your last year, what do you think of Pritzker?
I really enjoyed my time at Pritzker, and I’m a little bit sad seeing it come to a close already. Pritzker makes med school, which is intrinsically stressful, as unstressful as it possibly could be, which I really appreciate. They try, especially in the preclinical years. They try really hard. They’re all about wellness. I’m all about wellness because I’m drawing a bunch of comics all the time. And I’ve really enjoyed it.