When Satyan Lakshminrusimha wrote long answers on medical school exams as a student in India, he discovered he could explain concepts more clearly if he included a sketch. Later, as a medical intern, he realized his drawings could have real value helping clarify what can be hard to understand.
“If you look at all the medical textbooks, there’s only so much you can explain with text and radiology images such as X-rays,” said Satyan, who goes by his first name with patients and colleagues. “It’s easier to explain difficult concepts when you have a simple illustration in front of you.”
Now chief pediatrician at UC Davis Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the UC Davis School of Medicine, Satyan, a neonatologist who researches newborn resuscitation, continues to weave medical illustrations into his work. His figures have been used in presentations and publications around the world.
Satyan grew up reading comics like The Adventures of Tintin and The Phantom and even imagined becoming a comic book illustrator. But he said helping parents and students better understand what is happening to critically ill babies feels good.
“I feel like this is my contribution to medical education,” Satyan said. “It’s been a very fulfilling and satisfying part of my job. It is exciting when a student or a resident understands a disease process better with my illustrations.”
He recalled using a napkin to sketch an explanation for a new parent, who still carried the tattered paper at a follow-up appointment a year later. Now he packages his illustrations explaining medical concepts like the complications of preterm birth into a free mobile app — “Illustrative Neonatology” — patients can download to review the explanations. He was also an editor on the 2018 textbook Essentials of Neonatal Ventilation, which contains more than 200 of his illustrations.
“I’m known more for my figures than being a [department] chair,” he said. “Many of my papers get many downloads because people want to see my figures and use them for educating medical students.”
As for his original dream, he still draws for fun — he said his wife, a cardiologist, can tell when he looks stressed, and tells him to relax by drawing. When he retires, he said he’s hopeful he’ll have time to create a comic book — a tale of “a kid with a chronic illness who becomes a superhero and saves the world.”