As a physician, Shirlene Obuobi, 29, is just starting out, working on a cardiology fellowship after completing her residency at University of Chicago Medicine. But as a cartoonist, Obuobi is already a practiced hand. Her online persona, Shirlywhirl, M.D., is a favorite comic of medical Twitter and Instagram, and she recently signed on for a recurring column in Medscape.

Shirlywhirl, M.D., mostly explores the joys and frustrations of hospital work—wrestling with the “coverage cobra” of insurers and striving for elusive moments of work/life balance. But in 2020, the tenor of the strip shifted. Confronted with the pandemic and a national crisis in racial injustice, Obuobi’s comics took on a much more serious tone—an evolution that brought her work to a much wider audience.

Q: Do any of your comics from the past year especially stand out for you?

A: I did a series about doing rounds on the COVID intensive care units. I was really proud of that piece. We didn’t have cameras on the units, so my comic provided a window into them—the dedication of my teams and also some of the frustrations we felt. A lot of fellow health care workers saw themselves in what I drew. And a lot of people who weren’t health care workers, when confronted with the human aspects of treating COVID—well, they were taken aback. That felt good and cathartic.

Q: You produced several long, serious comics last year. In another you took on the police killings of Black people, and the first line read: “I was twelve years old the first time the police were called on me.”

A: You know, when an event like that happens, there’s often an effort to tarnish the victim’s character—to come up with reasons outside of their race why that person may have been targeted. 

When you go to elite, predominantly white institutions and are able to code-switch the way I can, you kind of fall into this category of an “acceptable” Black person. But this comic allowed me—a physician, someone who perhaps my peers respect—to show that I am not immune to racism in America. In that comic, I depict an experience when I was twelve during which cops were called on me because I was running around a hotel. And similar things have happened to so many other Black people, with terrible consequences.

Q: How can a comic help with weighty topics like this?

A: Comics are so underrated! There are so many things to say about this, but I’ll just focus on the speed at which they can be processed. In the medical profession we have so many essays and papers to consider, on top of very busy lives. Comics can be an easier way to address some topics. They take seconds to read, and they spark conversations, often with people on different levels of the medical hierarchy.

What I write about … they’re not exactly taboo topics, but in medicine, we don’t
really talk about the ways that social inequities influence health. We’re a very cerebral group; we like to talk about basic science research and clinical trials. So I’m happy if one of my comics can give someone a laugh and maybe allow us to refocus on other important topics for a little bit.

Q: Is there a “moral” to Shirlywhirl?

A: To best serve our patients, we really need to look for diversity. And I’m not just talking about diversity in terms of race and gender. It’s also diversity of thoughts and experience and talents. Not everybody has to be the focused researcher. Some people love to write and focus on communication. Other people are good at advocacy and political action. We should be finding those talents and nurturing them, rather than trying to create some mold of a perfect doctor.

There are so many ways medicine can help our patients and help the world. Through this work, I kind of found my own way to reconcile the various parts of myself. But there are so many people with so many talents out there, and I sometimes worry we’re letting all of that go to waste in this field. Let’s think about the many ways that we can really use our peers and celebrate their differences.