Real Research: Lohitha Kethu creates graphic novel to help children with Type I Diabetes adjust to life post-diagnosis

Featured photoLohitha Kethu.
Photos by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Ten years ago, Lohitha Kethu was shocked to wake up in a hospital bed attached to tubes and IVs.

“[The only] clue as to why I was in the hospital was a thick, text-heavy book on my bedside table titled ‘Pink Panther’s Guide to Understanding Type 1 Diabetes,’” Kethu said.

Kethu, who was 10 when their pediatrician diagnosed them with Type 1 diabetes, had no idea what was going on in their body and even felt somewhat responsible for developing the chronic disease. Even when Kethu’s pediatrician drew a model of the pancreas to explain the physiology of the disease, Kethu still couldn’t understand why it was necessary to take so many medications.

On top of it all, the Pink Panther guidebook was too technical to help the young child understand the disease.

“It was supposed to be friendly for kids but it’s just a bunch of text and numbers,” Kethu said. “It’s really helpful for your parents to read so they know what to do when you can’t take care of yourself at a young age.”

Now 20, Kethu wants to make sure diabetic children have access to more entertaining and relatable literature that explains the condition.

With the help of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship, Kethu used their skills as a medical illustration major in the Communication Arts Program at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts to create a graphic novel that helps children navigate the disease.

 

Character creation

Pages from Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel about a 10-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes.
Pages from Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel about a 10-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes.

Kethu spent the summer creating the heroine Kaci, a 10-year-old African-American girl who has just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kethu chose Kaci’s race after learning the disease disproportionately impacts African- and Native Americans.

Roughly 13.2 percent of African-Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 7.6 percent of whites, according to the American Diabetes Association. Native Americans have the highest diabetes rates of any race or ethnicity in the United States, at 15.9 percent.

“I thought it would be important to make the main character African-American because it makes it clear that even if you are a different race or ethnicity, you can still have support and live comfortably with diabetes,” Kethu said.

Readers follow Kaci as she learns to cope with her illness while on a school field trip to an aquarium and at a sleepover. She learns to open up to her friends about her diagnosis and not be too shy to ask for space when checking her blood sugar, or embarrassed about needing sustenance when her blood sugar is low.

Kaci’s storyline models Kethu’s early sense of alienation and difficulties adjusting following their own diagnosis.

“It felt really lonely at first and a lot of people at school said, ‘Oh, they’re contagious,’ and would stay away from me,” Kethu said. “Obviously, people were more accepting of it in middle and high school. At first it felt as if there was something wrong with me or I did something wrong [to cause the disease].”

Relating to young readers

A diagram in Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel helps explain to young readers what happens if someone with Type 1 diabetes stops taking medication.
A diagram in Lohitha Kethu’s graphic novel helps explain to young readers what happens if someone with Type 1 diabetes stops taking medication.

To ensure other children could relate to the work, Kethu conducted research on impacted populations. They spoke to pediatric endocrinologists about how they inform their patients, and questioned diabetic youth about what sort of illustrative materials would be helpful following diagnosis. Kethu evaluated the work of children’s book illustrators, medical illustrators and health communications specialists.

Kethu also worked with mentor Carmen Rodriguez, assistant professor in VCU’s Department of Biology within the College of Humanities and Sciences, to ensure the graphic novel accurately presented the physiology of Type 1 diabetes.

Rodriguez said Kethu balanced explaining the science behind the disease with the emotional struggles diabetic children face.

“Lohitha did a nice job describing Type 1 diabetes in a manner that children could understand. However, the emphasis of the novel was to describe some of the challenges children face when they are diagnosed with diabetes,” Rodriguez said. “Lohitha is full of great ideas. Hence, their biggest challenge was to look at all the ideas and focus on a select number of ideas and topics.”

Kethu aims to eventually distribute the work in pediatrician’s offices. In order to test the effectiveness of the graphic novel, they plan to survey readers who are pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and students in Richmond Public Schools.

Kethu is exploring inexpensive printing options, so the novel may be distributed to any diabetic child in search of guidance.

“Not until years later did I understand the biochemical and physiological nature of the disease,” Kethu said. “I hope that any children diagnosed with diabetes in the future will not have to experience the loneliness and confusion that I did.”

 

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