Texas doctor creates cartoons to explain the science behind COVID-19

U.S. & World

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Valentina Hoyos Velez didn’t realize she was an artist until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Hoyos Velez, a breast oncologist and assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, typically treats cancer patients and is a researcher who focuses on immunotherapies in her laboratory.

“I always thought we need to get better treatments, treatments that don’t have so much toxicities, that are better tolerated, and that actually can cure cancer,” Hoyos Velez said. “The more I learned about it, the more I, in my opinion, thought that immunotherapy is the way of the future for that.”

Trying to simplify explanations about immunotherapies to patients, paired with spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoyos Velez tried to get creative — with cartoons.

“I realized that many people were refusing to get the vaccine because they didn’t really understand how it worked, and there was a lot of misconceptions about it that I found online, and my patients would ask me things that really just made no sense,” Hoyos Velez said. “So I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just put a pause on the explaining cancer for now and just focus on explaining the vaccines to patients.'”

She recorded explanations to go along with her illustrations and launched a YouTube channel, called Immune Cartoons, where she uploaded videos in English and Spanish explaining how COVID-19 vaccines work.

“What I tried to do is to… get the information in an easy way so that people can go towards the right— the correct— information,” Hoyos Velez said.

“It’s our responsibility — the scientists, the doctors, the people that know that all these things that people are saying are not accurate — to ourselves put the right information out there,” she said.

Other medical professionals are catching on to her efforts.

“I stumbled upon the video with the cartoon,” said Delores Vandegrift, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Edison, New Jersey. “The pictures with the illustrations, it’s very easy to understand. I found it to be very useful.”

“Not everybody understands medical terminology,” Vandegrift said. “We talk in medical terms, and the average person that is especially not in health care or in medicine, they don’t know what those big words mean, and what happens? They get more afraid of it.”

Vandegrift has forwarded the videos to some of her patients, one of which said it helped influence their decision to get vaccinated when eligible.

That’s encouraging, according to state officials involved in the pandemic response.

“Anything we can do to simplify the messages about COVID-19, and the the serious effects that it has on individuals, and then what we can all do, to protect ourselves and protect our loved ones, I think is a great thing to do,” Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said.

TDEM is involved in coordinating shipments of personal protective equipment and hospital supplies, as well as medical personnel. The agency also works alongside local, state and federal partners to organize aspects of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“Simplifying that message, not speaking like we’re coming out of a scientific textbook, I think is something that I’ve tried to do … so that everyone has the ability to understand the negative effects of the disease, and the positive effects of what we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” said Christensen, who had not seen the cartoons.

Perhaps most surprising for Hoyos Velez was the popularity of her Spanish videos.

“The Spanish version took off a lot more than the English one, which I was surprised about,” Hoyos Velez said, noting that friends in other countries have talked about adding other foreign subtitles.

Ashley Miznazi contributed to this report.

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