Ian Williams has made a name for himself in the Graphic Medicine movement as an advocate for the form, but its in his graphic novels that he adds his most personal aspects to it, incorporating circumstances from his own experience as a doctor in Wales and crafting those portraits of the medical profession, acknowledging various points of concern — the doctor’s, the administrator’s, the patient’s, as well as others involved in the process — and attempting to depict them with fairness and understanding.
In The Lady Doctor, Williams introduces Dr Lois Pritchard, who works in the same Welsh practice as Dr. Iwan James the subject of Williams previous book The Bad Doctor. Pritchard is a sarcastic, no-nonsense medical practitioner who’s been offered a partnership and seems entirely together. No one is that sturdy, though, and Pritchard’s real cracks begin to show with the reappearance of her estranged mother, who had walked out on her and her father when she was a child in order to pursue a bohemian lifestyle. Juxtapose this with Pritchard’s close relationship with her deceased father’s girlfriend, who fulfills many of the roles of a mother, while also not overstepping the authority boundary.
Williams also spends a lot of time on Pritchard’s patient relationships in The Lady Doctor, including her personal pain in the neck who demands she provide him the drugs he’s addicted to, and also the various personalities that pass through a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases that she also works at, giving Williams the opportunity to portray some hilarious uncomfortable interactions, partially to display Pritchard’s skill at dealing with things many of us couldn’t, as well as put some circumstances on display that will cause queasiness.
The challenge in portraying Pritchard comes from the multiple levels that she is meant to function on. For one, she is there to give an idea of what it’s like to be a doctor in a small town in a place like Wales. For another, she communicates the experience of women doctors. She’s also a conduit for some specific medical issues and information, like organ donor issues and prescription drug abuse. At the same time, for any of this to matter, Pritchard has to be her own character, with emotions, situations, and a personality that goes beyond her function as a totem for all these other circumstances.
Williams is thankfully able to give Pritchard her own space in this big melting pot of issues to be addressed, with the added bonus of making the barrage of situations to be dealt with a crucial part of her experience that creates the person this book is about. Pritchard’s professional situation is all about multi-tasking and never becoming exasperated, and Williams depicts how she does her best to apply this on-the-job vigor to her personal problems. This is with varying success for her and when it does all far apart, it’s more embarrassing than destructive and speaks to the idea that doctors are human and fallible and all the good stuff that we’re supposed to know, but are typically surprised by when we find proof of that.
If Williams seems to be saying anything with Pritchard’sstory it’s that mistakes are inevitable and any given doctor is going to be a mixed bag of success — however, the medical profession does provide a system of procedures and knowledge that can at least help a doctor prevail against human error most of the time. Just never confuse this system with the human being availing them professionally.
It’s a valuable truth to take to heart in a world where people sometimes insist on treating doctors as potential super humans and medicine as some form of infallible magic. Williams’ own personality and humor is such that it translates well to the graphic memoir form. Interactions are punchy and funny, information is clear and solid, and the whole package comes together in an entertaining way. The fact is, there’s no reason for medical-focused texts like this to be engaging, but Williams has a distinct talent for it.