Taking Turns: HIV/AIDS Care Unit

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Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371

By MK Czerwiec

In 1994, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, MK Czerwiec took her first nursing job, at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, as part of the caregiving staff of HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Taking Turns pulls back the curtain on life in the ward.

A shining example of excellence in the treatment and care of patients, Unit 371 was a community for thousands of patients and families affected by HIV and AIDS and the people who cared for them. This graphic novel combines Czerwiec’s memories with the oral histories of patients, family members, and staff. It depicts life and death in the ward, the ways the unit affected and informed those who passed through it, and how many look back on their time there today.

Czerwiec joined Unit 371 at a pivotal time in the history of AIDS: deaths from the syndrome in the Midwest peaked in 1995 and then dropped drastically in the following years, with the release of antiretroviral protease inhibitors. This positive turn of events led to a decline in patient populations and, ultimately, to the closure of Unit 371. Czerwiec’s restrained, inviting drawing style and carefully considered narrative examine individual, institutional, and community responses to the AIDS epidemic—as well as the role that art can play in the grieving process.

Deeply personal yet made up of many voices, this history of daily life in a unique AIDS care unit is an open, honest look at suffering, grief, and hope among a community of medical professionals and patients at the heart of the epidemic.

Paperback. 224 pages.

“A remarkable episode in the history of medicine. It’s a time of staggering loss but also remarkable change. Through the lives and deaths of individual patients, written and drawn in documentary detail, we see the power dynamic between doctor and patient begin to shift. When cure is not an option, care takes on a new meaning.”

“An important work that takes the field of graphic medicine in new directions, both in terms of its object—the philosophy and practices of a clinical unit dedicated to the care of people with AIDS in a particular place and historical moment—and its approach—drawing on the comic artist’s own experience as a nurse on the unit as well as her interviews with other practitioners and patients.”

“Bears important witness to a specific moment in the history of HIV/AIDS through the testimony of caregivers, patients, and volunteers. MK Czerwiec’s story also issues a gracious challenge: knowing that we all live in vulnerable bodies, knowing that we will all ‘take turns’ needing others and being needed, how can we make this one life we have meaningful? This luminous graphic novel models how we can start: through creativity, community, generosity, and vulnerability.”

“The emotional honesty of the comic book is quintessential to the visceral experience of Taking Turns—funny, terrifying and heartbreaking. As much as it informs the reader about the devastation of HIV/AIDS, the book allows the reader to see the disease through the eyes of a person who is literally on the front lines.”

“The author’s deft handling of the multiplicity of relationships involved in patient care is the strength of the book, and they are all represented throughout the narrative. Czerwiec does an excellent job of showing how Unit 371’s commitment to care facilitated a depth of intimacy between provider and patient not often found in today’s productivity-driven medical care.”