Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371: Review

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371
by MK Czerwiec
Penn State University Press

Reviewed by Hank Trout

MK Czerwiec took her first nursing job in 1994 in the HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371, primarily but not exclusively an end-of-life care unit at the height of the epidemic, at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. She is also an author and cartoonist who is Artist-in-Residence at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, co-curator of GraphicMedicine.org, and co-author of Graphic Medicine Manifesto. She “uses comics to contemplate the complexities of illness and caregiving.” Taking Turns chronicles her experiences on the evening shift at Unit 371 with patients and other caregivers, often told through voices other than her own, some of the stories funny, some very touching, especially the stories about patients with whom she became close before they died.

The book is very effective at two things. One, it demonstrates how, due to the unique nature of HIV/AIDS care, old doctor-patient protocols and boundaries were deconstructed and rearranged to allow doctors to explore more personal, immersive involvement with the patients. As one of the doctors explains, there was already a closer-than-usual bond between the patients and caregivers: “That’s one of the things about this disease, right? Boundaries are crossed already because we are caring for our own community.” For example, Czerwiec befriends a patient, Michael, a fellow painter, who is soon to die; he and Czerwiec deal with their grief by working on a triptych painting together.

Second, the book also effectively captures the hectic, never-a-moment’s-rest activity in HIV/AIDS care units at the time. As Czerwiec says, there was little time to grieve the loss of a patient because there was always another patient waiting in the wings, needing the same kind of care. Czerwiec does a good job of conveying the frustrations, the dangers, but also the rewards of such selfless work.

For purely selfish reasons, my favorite part of the book occurs late, after the advent of HAART changed the nature of HIV/AIDS care, when Czerwiec goes to visit an older former patient named Roger to talk about the recently closed Unit 371 and what it had meant to him. Roger confides that “every day I’m made aware of having this disease.” He goes on, “I find, though, that I’m in a particularly interesting place historically. I’m an oral historian for the queer community. It’s kind of like being a Tribal Elder. And I like it.”

I know exactly how he feels.

Although some readers may be put off by the seeming dissonance between the subject matter here and the format—comics that resemble a less-caffeinated “Cathy” by Cathy Guisewite dealing with issues of illness, life, and death—others will appreciate the softer, gentler approach to the subject. It is, in the end, a quick read and an interesting glimpse into the early years of HIV/AIDS caregiving.

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.