A young doctor wrote of a life-or-death moment caring for a patient. The New England Journal of Medicine published it as a graphic novel.
A terrifying tale from her first weekend on call.April 22, 2021
Catherine Colaianni’s story of a late-night journey to care for a patient was published in graphic novel format. Photo by Donn Jones
Catherine “Alessa” Colaianni, MD, instructor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, has published an account of her experience as a fellow in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Breathe.
Colaianni, a Chicago native, completed her residency in Boston before making the move to Vanderbilt for a one-year fellowship with the Department of Otolaryngology, practicing head and neck surgical oncology and microvascular reconstruction.
Colaianni said she has always been drawn to writing, but during medical school and residency, she began writing to cope with intense situations on the job.
“If something is bothering me, I write about it,” she said. “A lot of experiences can be unpacked by simply writing them down.”
The publication takes inspiration from classic graphic novels and comic strips, illustrating Colaianni’s experience her first time on call as a fellow at VUMC. She recounts feeling overwhelmed leading a team of residents to perform a tracheostomy on a patient with laryngeal cancer whose airway was beginning to close.
She is initially uncertain of her abilities, but she soon realizes that she is capable of leading the team and saving her patient’s life. After a successful procedure, she reaches out to her mentor who assures her that, “You’re dealing with life-or-death decisions…discomfort is appropriate.”
Colaianni has been published by the New England Journal of Medicine previously, but this time was different due to the added illustrative aspect. When the journal asked Colaianni if she had any material that would work with their new graphic novel series, she eagerly said, ‘yes.’
The journal paired her with medical illustrators, who translated her story into art. The collaboration began in September 2020, and the piece was completed in mid-February.
The graphic novel style brings vibrancy and dimension to the personal stories being told. “It’s really interesting – a traditional institution trying something very fresh and new,” Colaianni said.
“When you’re making the transition from resident to attending or fellow, being the boss in the operating room, it can be really challenging from an emotional perspective. Those emotions are often unspoken, but I think we all feel them.”
“We are honored that the experience of a first day on call of a physician at Vanderbilt would appear in the New England Journal of Medicine – in a novel cartoon form no less,” said Roland Eavey, MD, Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of the department.
“Dr. Colaianni demonstrates creativity and innovation in her approach with the Journal. Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at its core is about communication, so the new cartoon approach is spot on for a broad population of readers who can relate to their own inner emotions caring for patients and teaching,” Eavey said.
Colaianni hopes sharing her experience will comfort other attendings and fellows, ensuring them the emotions they feel are valid.
“When you’re making the transition from resident to attending or fellow, being the boss in the operating room, it can be really challenging from an emotional perspective. Those emotions are often unspoken, but I think we all feel them,” Colaianni said.
“Any time you share a personal story about feeling insecure, scared or incapable of doing this crazy job we’re in, I think it can resonate with people who need to hear that other people feel this way too.”
The question Colaianni frequently comes back to in the operating room is, “Am I able to handle this?”
Her answer? “Of course I am.”
To read Colaianni’s story at the New England Journal of Medicine, click here. Computers on the Vanderbilt network should automatically connect to the story using the institutional subscription. Other computers or devices may require registering at the site for free access.