His wonderfully talented Instagram doodles have garnered thousands of followers. More than just helpful mnemonics, Mike Natter’s clever cartoons see both the humour and the humanity in the doctor’s daily grind.
Innominate chats (virtually) with Mike Natter about med school, drawing, diabetes and his newfound Insta-fame.
Serotonin receptors are everywhere! Most of them live in the gut (which is why SSRI side effects are largely GI related and is the MOA for anti-emetics like Zofran) and only ~2% are in the CNS. Some even live on platelets! Be aware of bleeding in elderly folks on SSRIs and blood thinners! #serotonin #5HT #neurotransmitters #platelets #brain #belly #ssri
Time/Date? (Where are you, what time is it, what were you doing just before you sat down to answer these questions)
It is currently 9:23pm EST in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA. I am deeply sunken into my IKEA couch in my tiny studio apartment (that is more reminiscent of a college dorm room than grown man’s residence.) Prior to sitting down to write this, I was studying family medicine things (my current clinical rotation).
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Mike Natter and I am a 3rd year medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University (previously known as Jefferson Medical College).
Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born and raised in New York City but currently reside in Philadelphia where my school is located.
Just quickly, how did you arrive to be a cartooning medical student/intern? Did you always want to study medicine?
My backstory is quite complicated… Despite having no doctors in my family, I was always drawn to the medical profession as a kid. That fascination only grew when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age nine. I gained a deep appreciation for the nuanced physiology that was taking place in the body as I was forced to manage my own blood glucose levels.
Although my interest in medicine was sparked early, my academic strengths have always resided in the arts and not the sciences. This led me away from pursuing medicine early on, as I believed it was out of my reach intellectually. I didn’t think I could do it.
I eventually gained academic confidence in myself late in my undergraduate career after excelling in difficult neuroscience based courses. Upon graduating, I enrolled in a post-bac (our version of the HSC/VCE) pre med program back home in NYC. Through a series of truly miraculous events, I was accepted into Jefferson Medical College.
Did you always draw to help with study?
I have always been a visual learner but caved into traditional note-taking and studying when I started med school as ‘doodling’ was seen as procrastination.
As an artist, I would instinctually sketch anything that lent itself to visual representation – anatomy being a prime example. After anatomy, the courses got significantly less visual, yet I would find myself doodling silly cartoons off on the margins of my notes as either a way to recall something or just as a funny aside.
To my surprise, when the exam would roll around all I could recall from my notes were the drawings.
By second year, I had traded in my notebook for a sketchbook and I now exclusively take my notes in a sketchbook.
It has made a world of difference for me, and my grades reflect that. What I found most surprising, however, was that on occasion when I would post a doodle on social media, my peers would approach me after the exam to say that my silly drawings got them some points on the exam!
Please describe the space where you do most of your drawing – whether it’s your art studio or kitchen bench!
I draw everywhere! A good amount of my studying/drawing is done at a local coffeeshop in Philly but I also draw at home – either at my desk or on my coffee table while sitting on my couch. I also find that some of my best work comes while I’m at the hospital, during rounds or overnight shifts – there is something about being focused on other things that allows the creativity to flow which in turn helps me focus more.
What inspires you?
My experiences and the people in my life inspire me. My friends, my family, the doctors, the patients, other artists – all of these interactions are opportunities for creative ideas and connections.
What depresses you?
I need balance in my life. Sadly, the medical training field is one with little opportunity for balance. This depresses me.
I am also deeply affected by the human condition – seeing suffering that cannot be treated, illness that cannot be cured, and inevitably experiencing death are things I don’t do well with.
Has your drawing created opportunities for you? Do you think it has changes your experience of medicine?
It has been such a whirlwind these past months. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my silly doodles scribbled into my notes would have this kind of reception.
Because of all the exposure I was able to do some work for the local newspaper – the Philadelphia Inquirer – illustrations to help explain different medical topics among other exciting opportunities.
Did you expect such a positive response when you started publishing your work? How do you feel about your newfound insta-fame?
Haha – I’m certainly not famous by any stretch but all of this exposure has been extremely flattering. I’m no different from anyone else – this med school process is a rough one that we are all in together.
I think sometimes we as medical students are reluctant to admit self doubt or imperfection but I tend to air my short comings, frustrations, anxieties, and screw ups via my cartoons as an outlet and I like to think that people can relate to that in some way, maybe even stir up a dialogue about pertinent issues.
I also hope that my didactic posts help others learn some high yield med stuff. At the very least, I hope they make someone smile.
Can you tell us a bit about your work for diabetes awareness?
Yes! Being a Type 1 Diabetic is not easy. Being a med student and dealing with diabetes just plain sucks sometimes. That said, we all have our challenges, mine just happens to be in the form of a bum pancreas.
My illness is also what inspires me to be a good doctor, because I will always be a patient before I am a doctor.
I have a passion for medical education, especially for those dealing with chronic illness, to empower them to take charge of their health. Prior to med school, I made a comic book called Captain Langerhans: Diabetic Superhero, to help explain the pathophysiology of diabetes to kids recently diagnosed.
I was also fortunate enough to do a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer explaining the pathophysiology of type II diabetes. I hope to one day become an endocrinologist and continue educating and empowering my patients.
What do you wish you knew about medicine before you got started?
I think I had the misconception prior to starting medical school that doctors knew everything. They had all the answers and yes while a select few actually do, the larger majority do not – and that’s ok! Doctors are human beings. We are not expected to know everything, so long as we know how to get the answers when necessary, we will be good doctors.
Do you think medical school encourages creativity, how would you like to see medical education change?
The short answer: No.
Med school forces you to jettison anything that is non-essential to learning medicine (at least for stretches at a time). The irony in this is that the practice of medicine is more art than it is science. The traditional medical education is churning out robotic, machine like clinicians who check boxes. This is NOT what a doctor is.
Doctors should empathise, think outside the box, and approach each patient as the individual they are. Thankfully, there seems to be a revolution underway in many American medical schools – mine included!
For example, there is now an option to sign up for drawing classes through my medical school and new tracks are being set up for college students who did not study pre-med but have a design or engineering background to skip the pre-med requirements and MCAT and apply.
What’s the best tip about art/medicine/life you’ve ever received?
When on your OB/GYN rotation, wear the booties that go all the up to your knee, not the ankle ones…
No, I’m kidding!
That’s a hard question to answer… I feel like I have been fortunate to have many influential people and mentors in my life all of whom have given me valuable advice.
“Let your mistakes live” was something that resonated with me – it applies to art, to medicine, to life – take that mistake as a new path, a new beginning, a better direction.
Wear your imperfections proudly. Learn from your mistakes; see things not as black and white but shades of grey. Believe in your mistakes. Letting your mistakes live embraces our missteps and turns them into positives, it lands us in places we never expected to be.
In some ways, it was the naysayers like some of my professors who said “your grades are not good enough,” or deans of admissions from other med schools who said “your MCAT score is too low,” or bosses I’ve worked for who said “you’ll never make it.” In many ways, they were the ones that pushed me the most.
What’s the thing about medicine you appreciate the most?
No other profession can directly help another human being in their time of need like that of a physician. I have the unique privilege to acquire a set of skills to do just that. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what I appreciate the most.
And the least?
I fear that the medical profession is lacking the work/life balance that I desire.
Any last words?
If you have a dream, however improbable, drown out the naysayers and make it happen without ever compromising who you are and what you believe.
Where can we see more of your work?
Anddddddd I am putting together a book – stay tuned!