Saturday, August 10, 2019

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371

MK Czerwiec
Penn State University Press
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


In 1994, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, MK Czerwiec took her first nursing job, at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, as part of the caregiving staff of HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Taking Turns pulls back the curtain on life in the ward.

A shining example of excellence in the treatment and care of patients, Unit 371 was a community for thousands of patients and families affected by HIV and AIDS and the people who cared for them. This graphic novel combines Czerwiec’s memories with the oral histories of patients, family members, and staff. It depicts life and death in the ward, the ways the unit affected and informed those who passed through it, and how many look back on their time there today.

Czerwiec joined Unit 371 at a pivotal time in the history of AIDS: deaths from the syndrome in the Midwest peaked in 1995 and then dropped drastically in the following years, with the release of antiretroviral protease inhibitors. This positive turn of events led to a decline in patient populations and, ultimately, to the closure of Unit 371. Czerwiec’s restrained, inviting drawing style and carefully considered narrative examine individual, institutional, and community responses to the AIDS epidemic—as well as the role that art can play in the grieving process.

Deeply personal yet made up of many voices, this history of daily life in a unique AIDS care unit is an open, honest look at suffering, grief, and hope among a community of medical professionals and patients at the heart of the epidemic.

My Review

Never have I been so moved by a graphic novel as I have with this account of M.K. Czerwiec’s career as a nurse in an HIV/AIDS care unit.

Her story begins in 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and before effective retroviral drugs existed. Though much of this story centers on patient treatment and interactions with other caregivers, there is a lot of thought-provoking exploration of living with a terminal disease, the fluid boundaries between caregiver and patient, and the emotional toll death takes on us all.

This thoughtful, simply written story is deeply moving, powerful, and a worthy addition to modern AIDS literature. While this graphic novel deserves every one of its 5 stars, I have a few minor quibbles that didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment.

One of the sentiments expressed towards the end bothered me a little. “This was our plague. It was devastation of a generation, a couple of generations…” I never liked that AIDS was referred to as the “gay plague.” This implies the disease only affected men and was a punishment.

The art was simple, and there were annoying blank pages between sections. This may just affect the e-book.

Some of the panels contained too much text and were at times difficult to read.

Though much progress has been made, many people around the world are still dying of AIDS because of fear, social stigma and ignorance, so I am glad for this novel’s existence. I was happy to find the e-book at my local library, as I can’t justify paying over $20 for a graphic novel.

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