On 25 December 2011, while many Nigerian families were getting ready to dish out the Christmas rice, stew and chicken, young Chidiebere Ibe and his family were drowning in their own tears. The family of five have just watched their mother take her last breath after battling ovarian cancer.
Ibe remembers being soaked in the pool of blood that gushed out from his dying mother. While tears streamed down his face, he wished he had enough medical experience to proffer a cure for his hapless mother.
Many years after, a 27-year-old Ibe can’t still shake the notion that his mother should never have died if the family had the resources and access to the best medical care. And he could be right. From the diagnosis and CT Scans that he saw later, ovarian cancer went undetected for months because the mother was being treated for fibroid which was so big that it covered the area where the cancer was. Ovarian cancer refers to any cancerous growth that begins in the ovaries, the organs that produce eggs in females.
Although Ibe recalls that day as the darkest day of his life, it also ignited a fire in him to pursue a career in medicine.
He found his dreams in the most unlikely places for a science endeavour – his passion for art. But it wasn’t just any art; it was a unique type of art known as illustration. An illustration is a visualisation made by an artist. It is a drawing (or painting, collage, engraving, photo, etc.) that explains something.
“I am just a creative and curious person,” he says.
Before he went full-time into illustration, Ibe was into many art forms such as animation, photography, videography, and graphic design. His curiosity for illustration made him decide to learn it. He was living in one of Nigeria’s rural communities in Ebonyi State where power supply was a scarce commodity. Ibe would travel for an hour to his church where there was always a power supply to plug the laptop he borrowed from a friend. Once plugged in, Ibe would work for hours with a computer mouse, practising different illustrations. He did this every day. He came to realise that no two artists are the same. This helped him develop a unique style for his art. But his passion was not complete without his dreams of becoming a medical doctor.
So he reached out to Doctor Ulrick Sydney Kanmouye, co-founder of Global Health who advised him to consider medical illustration. Kanmounye also supported Ibe financially to get a power bank to help him stay connected to the internet. The doctor also provided editorial oversight to Ibe’s early medical illustrations.
Although Ibe didn’t have prior knowledge about medicine, Ibe’s eagerness to learn proved the difference. In no time he got better in his newfound love. Ibe would go on to create an illustration that drew the attention of the medical world. In 2021, one of his illustrations depicting a pregnant black woman and her fetus received over 100,000 likes on Instagram since it was posted in November and sparked conversations in the United States and other Western countries about diversity in medical images.
For Ibe, medical illustration is a viral new world with many possibilities, especially for healthcare in Africa. It opened doors he never thought possible. In 2020, he became the creative director of the Journal of Global Neurosurgery, and lead medical illustrator of the International Centre for Genetic Disease at Harvard Medical School. In 2021, he raised money through a GoFundMe for tuition to attend Kyiv Medical University in Ukraine and enrolled as a first-year student. That journey was however cut short by COVID-19.
While he is now studying to become a surgeon at a university in Zambia, Ibe’s drive for ensuring representation in medical illustrations across the world is only growing. White bodies have always been the default in medical illustrations. A 2018 study by researchers, found that out of over 4,100 textbook images, only 4.5 percent showed dark skin tones. Also, in a 2021 analysis by the New England Journal of Medicine, only 18 percent of medical images showed nonwhite skin.
Ibe believes there is a possibility that black patients are misdiagnosed because doctors are looking at their conditions with the same eye they used to see white people, given they were taught with images depicting white skin tones. For example, heat rash on a white patient would appear reddish and this is mostly what is used to teach medical students around the world. Whereas, heat rash on most black-skinned people is not reddish.
A 2016 study by the Journal of The European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, found that 62 percent of providers incorrectly identified melanoma on black skin, compared to 13 percent on white skin, and only one in four chief residents reported hearing lectures on the skin of colour from an acknowledged expert; and just 12 percent of program directors reported a rotation in which residents gained specific experience in treating patients of colour.
The scarcity of black skin tones in medical images also has some racial undertones. The majority of black people’s images found in medical books depict them with HIV, malnutrition or with sexually transmitted diseases.
“It has been proven statistically that black pregnant women are more likely to die from birth complications and that is because of the idea that black pregnant women have a high tolerance for pain than white women. Because of this misconception, they do not give black pregnant women equal healthcare attention they deserve. That is why it is so important to bring illustrations like this that represent Africa differently so that physicians can provide equal medical attention to black patients generally,” Ibe said.
This is why Ibe’s choice of illustrating black skins in his medical illustrations is more than art. He describes it as telling the African story through illustrations showing an Africa different from sexually transmitted diseases or malnutrition.
He currently leads Illustrate Change, a part of Johnson & Johnson’s Our Race to Health Equity initiative, the company’s $100 million commitment to addressing the issue of diversity in medicine by ensuring that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t determine their access to care, quality of care or health outcomes.