5 Questions About: Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books.  In our latest installment of the series, MK Czerwiec discusses Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371.

Mark O’Connor’s review of Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 is currently available online and in issue 46.1 of OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 is a graphic memoir (non-fiction, long-form comic) informed by oral history interviews. Taking Turns tells the story, in comic form, of a new nurse (me) coming into her professional identity in a dedicated HIV/AIDS care hospital unit in Chicago at the height of the crisis years. It also provides a primer on the AIDS crisis in the United States, showing why unique care was needed, and how a community was formed to provide that care during years of profound loss and fear, yet also great compassion and connection.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Nearly ten years after our AIDS care unit closed, I was pursuing a master’s degree in Medical Humanities & Bioethics. In the course of my studies, I came to realize that the history of our Chicago AIDS Unit 371 was not formally recorded anywhere. I was shocked. Our AIDS unit was a model for compassionate, connected care. During our unit’s fifteen-year lifespan, people came from throughout the country to benefit from the excellent care we provided. Hundreds of people died there. Thousands of families and friends spent endless hours there. New treatment methods and new models of care had been developed there. Yet no history had been recorded. My goal was to change this. So as my thesis project, I interviewed former nurse colleagues, physicians, patients, our art therapist, social workers, volunteers, hospital administrators, family members, friends—anyone who could give me insights into this unique and important place. After transcribing and organizing these interviews, I then integrated my own memoir of being a nurse on this unit to create Taking Turns.

I decided to present it in a graphic form because while working on the unit I had started making comics to process experiences I’d had there. Additionally, a new field now known as Graphic Medicine had emerged and was quickly proving the important role comics could play in the discourse of health, illness, disability, and caregiving. I was convinced more than ever that comics were the perfect medium to convey the unique story of Unit 371. Adaptation from oral history and memoir to comics was a bit tricky, but my narrators were great supporters, generously allowing me to illustrate their stories in my child-like drawing style, while helping me integrate their experiences into a broader narrative of the unit.

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. By MK Czerwiec. Penn State University Press, 2017. 224 pp.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

First and foremost, I learned how much I did not know about the people and a history I thought I understood. Interviewing former colleagues taught me about their backgrounds, about how they thought of the work we’d done together, and what it meant for their lives years later. Oral history is a powerful tool for learning, teaching, and creating connections. This past year, one of the oral history narrators, who had become a great supporter of this project and character in this book, died. I am so grateful that because of oral history, this project gave me a means to include his memories, to share his expertise and insights. When he died, his family reached out to thank me as well. Through this book, and because of oral history, he will continue to be a teacher for generations to come.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

It is my hope that Taking Turns serves as an example of adaptation—a way to combine oral history with an artistic medium, in this case, comics. When I first completed the oral history of Unit 371 and gave it to friends and colleagues to read, they felt it was far too overwhelming as a text. “Like drinking from a firehose,” as one friend described it. Using the medium of comics, and the visual narrative tools it makes available, I was able to present the material and characters of this story in a way that was unified, manageable, and accessible. For example, people often speak in metaphors when describing their bodies, health, and traumatic experiences. Comics can easily make those metaphors visual. Further, from our earliest classes in English, we learn that the best storytellers “show, not tell.” Comics allow for this, literally. Comics also created room for silences in a way text-alone could not. All of these benefits were very important to me in this project.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

My hope is that the accessible graphic format will open doors to curiosity about one of the larger themes of the book, balancing cure and care. Our health care system relies heavily on technology, pharmacology, and incessant intervention. While 80% of people say they want to die at home, only about 20% of people do. Instead they die in ICUs, or long-term care facilities, often hooked up to invasive, painful technological interventions they likely said earlier that they did not want. There is much our current moment could learn from the kind of compassionate, connected care provided during the AIDS crisis. We were forced to accept death as the inevitability it was for our patients at that time (and is for all of us as humans) and we developed skills for making it easier. We were forced by the severity of AIDS and the marginalization of our patients to strengthen our human skills. As providers and consumers of health care, we must not neglect the human skills that are used in conjunction with technological interventions. If we fail to do this, we are not providing care for, or as, humans. One last point: as someone who was intimately involved in responding to the AIDS crisis in Chicago, it always bothered me that artistic and popular culture representations of the AIDS crisis ignored the middle of the country, as if AIDS only happened on the coasts. It felt important to share these stories, and with this book hopefully place a pin in the center of the country and say, “it happened here too.”