Interview with Surgeon and Children's book illustrator Dr. Maria Baimas-George
Using analogies and cartoons to explain medical disease to patients
I recently met a super-creative surgeon, Dr. Maria Baimas-George. She has created over 25 different children’s books to improve patient comprehension of surgical and medical diseases. She uses analogies and cute cartoons to explain topics ranging from appendicitis to gastroschisis. Maria has published data that supports the use of illustrated books to improve patient understanding, satisfaction, and fear. She is in her final year of General Surgery residency at Carolinas Medical Center and is headed to the University of Colorado for a Transplant Fellowship to be a transplant surgeon.
Here is a little more information about Maria. For more information, please check out her website at (www.strengthofmyscars.com) and follow her on Twitter at @Mbaimasgeorge
I’d like to share some of her drawings and get to know a little more about her. Please check out my interview with Dr. Baimas-George.
Can you tell us more about your story? Where did you get the idea for your children’s books?
Funny enough, my dream was to be an author from as early as I can remember up through high school. I have just always loved to write. When I first started my surgical residency, I remember being frustrated by the communication styles I witnessed. Some doctors excelled at providing explanations or surgical consent for patients. Others used words that even I did not recognize (and this was after four years of medical school!). Compounded by the stress of being in the hospital and rounding time constraints, I was flabbergasted and convinced that we, as a profession, were falling short in providing our patients with the opportunity for true information comprehension. This was particularly profound in the pediatric population. Having a child in the hospital can escalate fear and anxiety much more than if you were the patient yourself. This made information comprehension and retention that much more difficult while also requiring speaking in an age-appropriate manner. So, I came home one day after a particularly upsetting encounter and told my now-husband that there should be children’s books that explain different medical and surgical issues for patients and their families. And honestly, I was surprised these did not already exist when I searched online. That led to me creating them myself, and that’s how this “side hustle” was born. It’s funny how things really came full circle. From being a kindergartener wishing to be an author to getting to write books – just in a way I would have never imagined!
How often do you draw? Does it relieve stress from your job?
I draw probably several times a month, usually on my nights or weekends off. I find drawing to be incredibly relaxing and stress-relieving. It gives me an opportunity to stretch and exercise my creative side in a different way than surgery (which I find to be a most creative specialty in its own right!). But there is sometimes nothing better or more relaxing than sitting at my living room table, with the sun shining in, painting watercolors for my newest book.
When is your favorite time to create? What’s your process?
I don’t have a favorite time to create. Except that I prefer to draw when it’s sunny out with natural light. My process is a bit scattered, depending on the topic. I currently have a list of over 60 medical or surgical topics that I want to create books on. The hardest part is thinking of an analogy or a way to explain the complex pathophysiology for all ages and health literacy levels to understand. My best thinking time for this is at night, as I am falling asleep. Once I have an analogy, I write the words for a book, and then I finish with the drawings. The first half of the book is a simple story that usually explains the anatomy, pathophysiology, and hospital course. Although this can vary. The second half of the book is the “facts” section, which has essential information and also addresses commonly asked questions. This bit can have diagrams too (ex: the G-tube book has a labeled picture of the different parts) and a glossary called “Doctor Words” to familiarize patients with words they may hear.
Who are your favorite artists?
Oh boy. My favorite artists—that is a hard one. I think I’d have to say one of them is Quentin Blake. He was the illustrator for Roald Dahl. I grew up eating, breathing, and sleeping with Roald Dahl's books. And the style of illustrations Quentin Blake created really spoke to me—and still do. I find them so magical and filled with color, humor, and feeling. I think he inspired my style a little bit, now that I think about it. He describes his style as a “freewheeling sort of drawing meant to look as if it was done on the spur of the moment.” And that’s exactly how I do mine. Literally on the spur of the moment. Mistakes and all. You see, while I strive for perfection as a surgeon, I love that I can make mistakes in my drawings. And I love that people can see them. It’s like real life, which is what I’m trying to represent in my books.
What are your favorite medium (ink, digital, paint, etc) and subject matter?
My favorite medium is easily watercolors. I like that I can just open my watercolor set ($5 from Michaels! Very affordable too!) and with a glass of water and a brush, I’m ready to go. There is little setup or clean-down time. They dry quickly, and then I outline them in black ink. I tried to switch to digital about a year ago. I wasn’t able to recreate the spontaneity or the loose style that I’ve come to love and that I think fits well with my books.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project is to create books for the transplant population. I want to do books on living donor kidneys, living donor livers, cadaveric kidneys, cadaveric livers, and a transplant book for the general population. I already have ideas in mind for analogies but have stalled a little. Since transplant surgery is my favorite thing in the whole world, I want to make these books my very best. And I want to do them when I am in my fellowship, surrounded by all things transplant so that I can use my real-time experiences to hopefully enhance the books and make them that much better. The book for the general population is meant to help distill the myths and biases that surround transplants, which could, beyond helping families and friends understand what a patient might be going through, perhaps even raise the registration rates for organ donors.
Do you have any advice for creatives who work in the medical field?
My advice would be to incorporate your creativity into your work as much as you can. Bringing my art into surgery has made my experience and job that much more rewarding and unique and fun. Being able to help patients visualize what you are explaining can improve their comprehension and overall experience (studies have demonstrated the benefit of visual aids in consent over and over again – I mean it’s quite logical). It can also help to ease your own stress and let you switch gears for a little, helping in those difficult, trying moments. From drawing for scientific manuscripts to my illustrated patient education books to designing logos for our department to drawing when I consent patients for surgeries, these colorful layers make my job that much more rewarding, and I would not be happy doing anything else.
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