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Alumni Profile: Drawing on Many Mikes

08/01/18

Intern Uses Art to Apply the Adage “Physician Heal Thyself”

Mike Natter, MD ’17

There’s something whimsical about the doodles Mike Natter, MD ’17, posts on Instagram, a popular photo and video-sharing social network. It’s not that they aren’t serious. After all, he has the artistic chops to do medical illustrations for Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and some of his drawings take on grave matters like trauma, pain, death, impostor syndrome, and intern burnout. But even when the artist-physician is being sober-minded, there’s still a wry smile and friendly humor peeking through his art.

“In art school I considered myself more of a scientist than an artist,” Natter says, “because I was interested in the brain. And then in medical school, I considered myself more of an artist than a med student.” As a student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, he made anatomy sketches and funny cartoons about life as a student doctor and shared them on social media.

“Even today, I’d rather identify as an artist first and a doctor second,” he avers.

Natter is an intern at NYU Langone Health. His unlikely trajectory from nine-year-old diabetes patient to artist to Jefferson physician brings together tracks normally thought of as divergent: doctor and patient, art and science, doubt and confidence, noble calling and servile slog. 

He first awoke to the allure of medical science when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and had to monitor his glucose, insulin, and diet. The body’s delicate balancing act while juggling these substances awed him, and his ability to choreograph the biochemistry of his own pancreas suggested that maybe he could help others as a doctor. “In my family, everyone revered doctors,” he says. “We saw it as a godlike profession, and yet it was something I could never aspire to because, growing up, I was an art-and-humanities kid. I was bad at math and science, and was scared of them.” But he was good at drawing and focused on studio art as an undergrad. The nagging sense that he really wanted to be a doctor never went away. 

In senior year of college, Natter was surprised when he did well in neuropsychology and switched majors. “That was the first time in my life I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not as dumb as I thought!’” he says. After graduating, he took premed courses and applied to medical schools. Only Jefferson interviewed him. Admissions director Elizabeth Brooks, DPM, admitted that she pulled his application from the rejection pile because of a comic book he’d created to explain diabetes to kids through a superhero named Captain Langerhans.

“I saw a spark in him,” Brooks says. “I thought this was someone I would love to be my doctor someday.”

Mike Natter, MD ’17

Like most students, Natter found the demands of medical school daunting, but again it was the artist who came to the rescue. He learned medicine by illustrating his class notes. The doodles in the margins soon morphed into full-fledged drawings of organs and their functions, diagrams of biochemical pathways, and other “didactic stuff”—often with quirky glimpses of visual humor. He posted the illustrations and cartoons on social media and soon attracted a following, which included many medical students who thanked Natter for helping them pass exams. 

At Langone, he’s still drawing notes and posting them online, but he’s also chronicling the internship experience. “It’s been good, and it’s been trying,” he says. “You’re learning how to practice medicine for the first time. You’re dealing with death and codes. You’re trying to help people in their time of greatest need, and it’s exhausting.” 

Natter calls these clinical experiences “microtraumas,” with the emphasis falling more on the trauma than the micro. Those existential jolts grate against the fragile self-assurance of young doctors, which is further worn down by the physical rigors of being on call for 28-hour shifts. One Natter post has an image of a shellshocked intern being stretched cruciform by surgical clamps. It’s a self-portrait of what it feels like to be dazed by death and dying, bewildered by uncertainty, and distraught by piles of laundry he has no time to wash. In another post, he writes, “The journey to make others healthy is painfully unhealthy … and dangerous.” The cartoon depicts Natter in scrubs, unshaven and bleary-eyed, telling a patient, “It’s important you get good sleep every night, eat healthy each day, and exercise.” The patient doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of it, but Natter’s followers get it and comment with sympathy—and more than a little snark. 

Mike Natter, MD ’17

Drawing is Natter’s way of venting and poking fun at what’s personally unsettling. “In medicine, there’s this weight we have to carry around where we can’t admit our shortcomings,” he says. “We have to show confidence and perfection at every turn.” Being able to lower his guard in a sketchbook and make friends with the demons and hard realities that come with medical training make it possible for him to do what he’s always wanted and most loves: “to help people” as a doctor.

After receiving his diabetes diagnosis, that nine-year-old kid became Natter’s very first patient—and in a way he still is. “What I do every day is, first and foremost, test my sugar and take my insulin before I put on my stethoscope,” he says. But these days, it’s the artist showing us the spark of vulnerability beneath the cool and in-control physician. Or maybe that’s the patient plying his expertise in fragility, uncertainty, and just being scared who’s doing the healing. 

“Every kid has a box of crayons, and every kid draws,” he says. “When everyone else stopped, I continued to draw. I don’t know why that is.” Natter is still that kid with a crayon trying to draw a picture of something honest and true.

BY PETER NICHOLS