Comics help sick kids understand

By Angela McCarthy

Skinderella, a Medikidz character, teaches children about skin and bones. Photo / Supplied
Skinderella, a Medikidz character, teaches children about skin and bones. Photo / Supplied

Medical conditions and comic superheroes don't usually get mentioned in the same breath, but a Kiwi doctor has changed all that with the action-packed world of Medikidz.

Medikidz, a series of comic books about complex medical conditions, is the brain child of Dr Kim Chilman-Blair. The Medikidz comic books consist of five superhero specialists of different parts of the body - Skinderella, Axon, Chi, Pump and Gastro.

Team leader Pump is the heart specialist. Axon knows all about the brain, Chi about the lungs and Skinderella is the expert on skin and bones. Last but not least is Gastro.

The superheroes live on Mediland - a planet shaped like the human body where the superheroes guide the reader through the causes, treatments and cures of different medical conditions.

In the asthma book, characters enter the respiratory system and walk around the lungs; in the ADHD book they visit the brain.

Medikidz also has titles to explain adult conditions to children such as melanoma, breast cancer and Alzheimer's.

The concept of Mediland grew from Chilman-Blair's frustration with the absence of written resources for children about medical conditions. The dearth of such resources initially came to her attention when she was a medical student doing a placement at Starship Hospital.

A child had asked her for something to read on seizures and epilepsy, desperately wanting to understand her condition.

"I presumed there would be hospital information but when I went looking there was nothing, and nobody I asked could recommend anything," she said.

Chilman-Blair searched online for appropriate overseas material but found nothing written for children about epilepsy, nor any other condition.

Chilman-Blair loved working with children. She completed her study, qualifying in paediatrics medicine. But the lack of information for children continued to frustrate her and eventually she took matters into her own hands and tried to write a kids' picture book on epilepsy.

"It was a disaster," she says, "because it just wasn't funny enough."

Even so, she was convinced the concept would work if done properly. She enrolled in a Masters of Entrepreneurship at the University of Otago and began learning how to turn an idea into a business.

For 18 months Chilman-Blair juggled her job at Hawkes Bay Hospital with regular on-campus trips to the university, where she became immersed in seminars on tax, marketing and business planning.

"I had no idea about business before I started. I didn't even know what a board of directors did."

During that time she met businessman and doctor Simon Bednarek of The Doctors Hawkes Bay, who became her mentor.

"Bednarek made a huge difference. I wanted him as my mentor because he was a doctor who had gone into business and understood both those worlds," says Chilman-Blair.

Buoyed and excited by what she was learning, Chilman-Blair entered and won the 2006 National Business Review Audacious Business Award, a Dragons' Den-style competition for tertiary students. It was a significant moment, said Chilman-Blair.

"Not only did I win $20,000 to get my business going but it was a strong signal to me that my idea really did have legs."

Her winnings, plus investment from Stephen Tindall and another New Zealand investor, gave her enough funds to collect a couple of staff and start writing content.

"I was also still working full time as a pediatrician. I always had my pager in one hand and my BlackBerry in the other."

In 2009 a medical school friend, Dr Kate Hersov, joined Chilman-Blair and they moved Medikidz to London to start publishing. "Our research indicated that Medikidz could go global because there was nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The move to London simply made everything more accessible, including investors."

It was a scary leap of faith, she said, because they arrived in London just as the recession began to bite.

"It was touch and go for a long time - an emotional rollercoaster from month to month. Once you get investors on board you need to keep having total belief in yourself. The moment you start to doubt yourself, your investors will doubt you too."

A turning point was making contact with Bill Jemas, former executive vice-president of Marvel Comics. "I called him up. He was travelling somewhere on a train and had nothing better to do so he listened as I told him about the comic book series.

"After about an hour's conversation he said he loved the idea so much he wanted to be fully involved and came on board as creative director."

Jemas then tapped the shoulders of other graphic novelists including John Taddeo, who had worked on Spiderman for 30 years. "These guys spend their lives engaging with children in a fun and entertaining way ... They've really helped us by taking the writing and art to another level."

As well as appealing to children, the books have to have credibility among the medical profession, says Chilman-Blair. All the books are peer-reviewed by leading health professionals. Each book is also endorsed by medical or support organisations.

The series launched in September 2009, with the business breaking even the following November.

There are now 21 titles published in 15 languages and covering conditions as varied as leukaemia, cystic fibrosis, depression and HIV. More than 930,000 books have been sold so far.

"Things have become a little easier although we now have the new challenge of growing and expanding. As part of that, in January [next year] I'm moving to the US to set up Medikidz America, while Kate stays here," says Chilman-Blair. She adds that they have another great challenge on the way - both of them are expecting babies in November.

At 16, Chilman-Blair set her heart on becoming a doctor after a trip to India with her father, where she observed a female doctor working in the slums. However, she missed out on medical school when she first applied. While disappointed, she held on to her goal with determination.

"I did a degree in pharmacology instead and then reapplied. I guess I learned early that nothing came easy," she says.

Chilman-Blair funded her way through eight years of medical school by writing about complicated medical topics for mainstream readers. That experience has been invaluable in honing the skills she needed to create Medikidz. "I was developing skills for Medikidz without even knowing."

Writing is still a major part of Chilman-Blair's role in Medikidz. Both her and Hersov spend a couple of hours writing each day.

"We write the medical skeleton for each book. We normally come up with a new subject after a glass of red wine. That is the easy part," laughs Chilman-Blair.

She misses working as a doctor but the opportunity to create Medikidz has been too big to ignore.

"We have hopefully helped over 930,000 children feel better about the medical conditions they're going through. That feels very worthwhile."

- NZ Herald

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