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Drawing on cartooning to reach young patients

Dr. John Maypole in his office at Boston Medical Center.
Dr. John Maypole in his office at Boston Medical Center.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

That saying about a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? For Dr. John Maypole’s young patients, that sugar comes in the form of cartoons.

Maypole, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, creates whimsical drawings while caring for some of the most vulnerable children. He gets down on the floor and crawls under tables, if that’s what it takes — with pen and paper in hand — to distract and soothe scared youngsters.

As director of the Comprehensive Care Program at BMC, the 52-year-old high-octane pediatrician sees children with complex needs — babies born prematurely, or with chronic medical challenges, including autism, Down syndrome, and severe asthma. They are often homeless and their parents are dealing with disability, domestic violence, or substance abuse.


Maypole was fascinated with the program and its patients when he first encountered them as a medical student in 1994. He became the program’s director in 2000, and since that time has grown it nearly fivefold.

He started cartooning as a child, learning from his mother, who created humorous greeting cards. Later, he took a formal art class at Yale University, where he also attended medical school. (The art professor, nonplussed by Maypole’s artistic talents, advised the budding doc to stick to cartooning.)

And he hasn’t stopped — drawing or musing about a potential cartoon while on hold on the phone, or overhearing a ludicrous conversation on the street, or trying to explain a complex medical term to an overwrought parent.

“It’s become my outlet for creativity, frustration, and joy,” says Maypole, who has three children, ages 11, 18, and 20. “It’s akin to letting my freak flag fly.”

Maypole's latest cartoon.
Maypole's latest cartoon. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

With his young patients, Maypole will often ask them what their favorite animal is, or their two favorite sports, then start crafting his pictures accordingly, while simultaneously gaining a window into the child’s thoughts and fears. Sometimes patient and pediatrician draw together. Other times, a youngster will color in Maypole’s drawings.


“It distracts them, and redirects them from worrying about the flu shot they’re getting today,” says Maypole, who grimaces dramatically when he mentions the shot.

He remembers one of his toughest patients, a petrified child who was raised in near isolation, with little human contact, before he was scooped up by the state’s child protective services department.

The boy was screaming under a chair, not letting any of the health care workers near him. Maypole grabbed a pen and paper and slowly crawled toward the boy while making car sounds — vroom, vroom, beep, beep — as he drew a picture of a car. Then he stopped and exclaimed, “You have such a nice car.”

That startled the boy — who, it turns out, loved cars — and calmed him so Maypole could examine him.

“That’s a case where it worked,” Maypole says. “One hundred times, it doesn’t.”

Like in the case of another patient, a 5-year-old boy, who recently examined the cartoons Maypole sketched of the boy’s favorite animals — a lion and a dragon — looked up and asked, “Don’t you have any stickers?”

Maypole’s desk and the walls of his shoebox-sized office reflect his gentle, humorous take on caring for anxious children and their frazzled parents, in addition to some other quirky art mixed in. (He sees patients next door in a more spacious clinic.) Some of his office highlights:


A stack of hand drawn cartoons.
A stack of hand drawn cartoons.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Neon-colored cartoon cards. A pile of lime green, yellow, and orange index cards near Maypole’s computer reflect his latest encounters with patients, their parents, and the medical world at large. He often creates the images while he’s holding on the phone. One of his recent drawings depicts a stick figure of a spectacle-wearing, harried dad talking into a phone, with the caption: “Hi doc. It’s me. I left her forms blank at the desk. Fill ’em out and send ’em to school. Call me after. Bye.” Maypole (aka @drmaypole) often Tweets pictures of his cartoons, as he did this one, with the caption:

“Dear parents, don’t be this guy.

Love, Pediatricians Everywhere.

PS who ARE you and who is your kid?

PPS this actually happens.”

A collage of cartoons drawn on Maypole’s daughter's lunch bags.
A collage of cartoons drawn on Maypole’s daughter's lunch bags.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Lunch bag cartoons collage. Maypole used to grab whatever was lying around the kitchen — crayons, pens, or Sharpies — to draw sometimes sweet, sometimes irreverent pictures on his youngest daughter’s lunch bags. His wife preserved some in a collage, which she photographed and framed, and it hangs on the wall near his desk. Among the hits: a scowling face peering at a thermometer, with a thought bubble that reads: “32 Degrees! Why can’t global warming hurry up?”

A portrait of two women, one with measles and the other scarlet fever.
A portrait of two women, one with measles and the other scarlet fever. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Measles and scarlet fever. It’s something only a pediatrician or dermatologist might love. In this case, Maypole’s uncle was both, a pediatrician turned dermatologist, who collected old lithographs. A framed one from 1905 of two women, one with measles, the other scarlet fever, adorns the top of Maypole’s book shelf.


A unique tape dispenser in the office of Dr. John Maypole.
A unique tape dispenser in the office of Dr. John Maypole. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Green silicone creature. People receive and give all sorts of weird objects in holiday Yankee swaps. About two years ago, Maypole won a tape dispenser in the shape of a green silicone creature sitting on a toilet bowl. He’s never used it, but can’t seem to part with it, either.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.