Comic Relief

Graphic artist Nathan Gray on the power of comics in palliative care

An illustrated self portrait of GRAPHIC ARTIST NATHAN GRAY

Illustration by Nathan Gray

Nathan Gray is a palliative care doctor as well as a graphic artist. His comics about his clinical work reach millions of people online and in publications including the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

Gray, who was fellowship trained in hospice and palliative medicine at Duke University Medical Center, joined Johns Hopkins as assistant professor of palliative care in 2022.

What is it about palliative care that appeals to you as a doctor?

The chance to sit down, lean in and hear someone’s story is a privilege that can easily get lost in the hustle and bustle of hospital care or clinic appointments. The job is certainly heavy at times, but connecting with people who are wrestling with serious illness, trying to understand their perspectives and needs, and helping them manage their symptoms infuses each day with meaning. 

How do you go about distilling these very emotional and complex topics into a few panels of simple words and images?

Usually, a story starts with a challenge that I see patients or clinicians face, or a soapbox I’m tempted to climb onto. For a wordy person like me, the process of making a comic is helpful because it forces me to trim and simplify my words to fit into images (and then watch an editor cut those words down even further)! Before I put a comic into the world for the internet or a newspaper, I also have a few colleagues and lay people look at it as well. One of my greatest editors is my wife, Bethany Gray, who is a faculty member here at Johns Hopkins in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences.

Are there misconceptions about palliative care that you hope to correct with your graphic art?

Palliative care encompasses quality of life support across the spectrum of serious illness, including for those whose medical issues may be curable. While I do often explore the spaces that surround the end of life, I also like being able to show a side of palliative care that happens upstream — where patients and families can be supported in living well and doing the things that they love. 

Which of your stories have been most popular? Has reaction to any of your pieces surprised you?

Two pieces that I created early on — one about the limitations of CPR for a magazine called Topic, which has since closed, and one about the realities of caregiving at home for someone with serious illness for the Los Angeles Times — seemed to resonate with a surprisingly large body of readers.

While I’m always hoping that each new piece will find an audience, I’m still surprised sometimes when such intense topics get shared broadly by folks across age and geographic groups.

A piece I did last year for the Washington Post about relationship advice from long-term couples that I met in the hospital generated a surprising amount of commentary online, and I think that speaks less to the medical aspects of the story than to the universal quirks of living alongside another human.