HARTLAND — James Sturm recently had a problem with one of his eyes, and his doctor told him that he needed a test involving dye and a special machine to identify the source of the issue.
Sturm, a 55-year-old Hartland resident who co-founded and directs the White River Junction-based Center for Cartoon Studies, came to this experience armed with knowledge gained through a fellowship from the Harvard Radcliffe Institute that he’s using to put together a comic book about the U.S. health care system.
So, he asked his doctor a slew of questions: “What is this test? How much does it cost? Do I need it right now?”
The doctor, Sturm said, didn’t know how much the test cost. When Sturm eventually did get the test, the doctor said he remembered Sturm’s concerns about the cost and offered it free of charge.
“Great,” Sturm said of the freebie. “But is this how the system should be working?”
In his new comic book, Health and Wealth: A Graphic Guide to the U.S. Healthcare System, Sturm aims to arm other patients with the knowledge he’s gained by working with a team of Harvard students from academic fields such as the history of science, biology, folklore, mythology and anthropology.
Additional collaborators on the project include Sam Nakahira, a member of the cartoon school’s class of 2021, and Kazimir Lee, a 2016 graduate.
Sturm acknowledges that the topic of U.S. health care, where it is and how it got there, is a big one to tackle in a comic book, but he said he hopes the book creates “some kind of foundation of understanding” to help people think about how health care is structured.
The book aims to address complex topics such as growing health care costs, the evolution of the role of hospitals in health care and health insurance through illustrations inspired by SchoolHouse Rock videos, classic board games and the children’s book author Richard Scarry.
One page features U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as a monkey, standing back-to-back with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., depicted as a turtle.
Both are telling reporters, variously represented as a bunny, a dog and a bug, that the health care system doesn’t work. The next panel asks, “Has it always been this way?”
Another page depicts the health care system as a mishmash of different board games stuck together using bandages.
An asterisk at the bottom of the page says: “There are different rules depending on who is playing. Outcomes are often determined by the color of your skin, your ZIP code, and how much money you have at the beginning of the game.”
Sturm comes to the project having previously worked on comic books about topics such as how democracy works, This is What Democracy Looks Like, released in 2019, and mental health, Let’s Talk About It, which was released last fall.
The Health and Wealth team began meeting weekly via Zoom in September from their respective locations around the country. Sturm was in Hartland, while students were in places as varied as North Dakota, Los Angeles and Maine. Sturm said he looked forward to the weekly meetings as he isolated at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They began by doing some reading about the health system, including Elizabeth Rosenthal’s 2017 book An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back and Steven Brill’s 2013 article in Time Magazine, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” and episodes of The New York Times’ podcast “1619.”
For his part, Sturm said he learned about employers subsidizing health care to a large extent, about Medicare growing out of the civil rights movement and about the complexities of medical billing.
Following the research stage, they each put together a 32-page book map, or visual outline of what they thought a comic book about the health system might look like. They took those initial maps, pulled them together and sought feedback from other Radcliffe fellows and cartoonists as the book evolved.
By the end of the first semester they had what Sturm describes as a “pretty tight” draft.
Now, as they continue to fine-tune it, they’ve also turned their attention to how best to share the completed book with others.
Earlier this month, they launched a GoFundMe campaign, “GoFundMe Can’t Fix Healthcare,” aimed at raising $3,500 to support the printing and distribution of the book. As of Friday, it had raised $5,585.
The decision to use GoFundMe was not an accident and came out of the group’s research that found that though GoFundMe hosts 250,000 medical campaigns each year, nine out of 10 don’t meet their stated goals and most don’t even get halfway there. The challenge is especially difficult for marginalized groups, including people of color and the LGBTQ community.
The group plans to send copies of the comic book to all members of Congress, as well as nonprofits that seek to educate people about health care and push for reform.
For his part, Sturm said he isn’t sure what needs to change to improve health care, but he’s optimistic the COVID-19 pandemic will become an inflection point for policymakers.
“I hope that this is a moment that we’re open to some changes,” he said.
Once complete in six to eight weeks, the book will be available for download on The Center for Cartoon Studies’ website www.cartoonstudies.org.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.