Dr. Shirlene Obuobi prescribes comedy for health and healing
Jennifer Robinson | 2/1/2024, 6 p.m.
Dr. Shirlene Obuobi, a third-year general cardiology fellow at the University of Chicago, uses creativity to process what she sees and learns while pursuing a medical career.
Through her comic alter ego and personal experiences, Dr. Obuobi creates narratives promoting change and advocacy in health care, while also tackling complex topics of sexism, racism, micro-aggressions, and physicians’ frustrations with medical insurance. As such, her work has been featured in academic journals, museum exhibitions, the Washington Post and on “Good Morning America.”
During a recent interview, Dr. Obuobi discussed the emergence of the medical humanities movement and how graphic medicine is the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of health care.
On Feb. 6, Dr. Obuobi, who is Ghanaian-American, will share her creativity and insight during VCU Libraries’ Black History Month Lecture at the James Branch Cabell Library Lecture Hall.
Free Press: What motivates you to write, draw, and be a doctor? Why do you do all of this?
Dr. Obuobi: I want to share my experiences as a Black female in cardiology because the field is only 15% women and 5% Black overall. Also, profit drives health care, so health care workers are under a lot of pressure. Biases spring forth, and we normalize a lot of things. Many doctors are unaware of their biases.
The public should have the knowledge to advocate for themselves. I did a comic on how the health care community views and treats something like cystic fibrosis compared to how sickle cell anemia is treated.
Sickle cell patients are often treated as drug seekers when they are experiencing real pain as a result of their illness. That’s sheer bias.
Free Press: Most people pick one side of their brain and lean into it. You are both a scientist and an artist. How is that possible?
Dr. Obuobi: I’ve always done everything. I’ve been writing and drawing since I was a kid. I asked for a book signing for my 10th birthday instead of a birthday party. I sold 10 to 20 copies and made what I thought was good money.
But I also like evidence-based topics like science. My mother is a pediatrician, so I spent a lot of time in hospitals as a kid. Physicians are storytellers. We have to put a patient’s history into a narrative to uncover what’s happening medically. Medicine and storytelling make me a better doctor.
Free Press: How does a medical student-turned resident and fellow have time to write a novel?
Dr. Obuobi: I don’t watch TV. I’m an introvert and a hermit, so when I have downtime, I write and draw. It’s just what I do. It helps me process my feelings and thoughts for perspective. It’s just so much a part of me now.
Free Press: What challenges have you faced as a Black female doctor?
Dr. Obuobi: I am the first Black female in my program in 20 years, so there’s resentment rather than respect. My knowledge and capabilities are constantly questioned. I don’t get the respect my colleagues get from nurses and staff. That means it takes longer for me to do my work because of the extra steps I have to take to prove myself.
And it’s not just the medical staff. I’ve had my bottom slapped twice by patients —Black patients! I love taking care of the Black community, but navigating certain situations means I have to make tough choices. Advocating for my patients can sometimes mean jeopardizing my career. I don’t want to carry the label of the angry Black woman.
Most of my patients are wonderful. Black women tell me they’re proud of me, but some tell me that I’m not one of them.
Free Press: Is there some- thing about being Ghanaian-American that makes being a Black female doctor more or less challenging?
Dr. Obuobi: Yes and no. It doesn’t matter as much with patients. Black is black. I grew up in the U.S., so I don’t have an accent.
Becoming a doctor is where it makes a difference. Medical school is hyper-competitive and out of reach for most people who don’t come from means.
It’s an expensive journey that starts before you even get to college, so without means, you’re excluded. You have to have the benefit of good schools and tutors. I had the advantage of having a parent who’s a doctor. That helped me navigate the system.
When you look at people of color in med school, it’s African or West Indian immigrants who are first-generation Americans.
My med school class was diverse, but there weren’t many Black American students. The number of Black Americans in med school is plummeting, which is not good given medical bias and health disparities.
Free Press: What advice do you have for Black and Brown patients when experiencing bias in doctors’ offices and hospitals?
Dr. Obuobi: Doctors are trained to think about patients as dying or not dying or sick or not sick, so it’s up to you to lead the conversation. It should be a collaborative effort between you and your doctor. Come to your doctor appointments armed with information. The best thing patients can do is educate themselves through reliable sources. Do not let the doctor dismiss the symptoms you describe. Ask questions if you feel your symptoms aren’t being addressed.
A good question to ask your doctor is: if you aren’t doing anything, what’s your plan if this symptom persists? If the doctor becomes defensive, it’s not the right doctor for you.
Free Press: Can you share a preview of your lecture at VCU Libraries’ 2024 Black History Month Lecture?
Dr. Obuobi: My talk will be about how we can use narratives to discuss health care— clinician narratives. It’s about how we can use our identities to forward change and promote advocacy in health care. I use comics because I want people to think. I want doctors to shift their thoughts and address their biases.
I’m so pleased that I’m doing this talk during Black History Month, and the bonus is that it’s also on Women’s Heart Day.
Shirlene Obuobi, M.D., will deliver VCU Libraries” Black History Month Lecture on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at James Branch Cabell Library. Her topic will be “Narrative Medicine and Identity.” Registration for the free event, both in-person and on Zoom, is open.