To cope with the grinding stress of medical school, students may, if they have time, seek hobbies outside the realm of lectures and lab coats.

Mai Stewart's stress-buster keeps her squarely in the field of medicine. She draws cartoons about the process of becoming a physician.

A fourth-year student at Temple University's Katz School of Medicine, Stewart uses scalpel-sharp humor to illustrate the feelings that have plagued med students for ages: inadequacy, stumbling fatigue, panic, and — after those precious moments of true understanding — relief.

The primary character in the drawings, now followed by 10,000 fans on Instagram, is a cartoon version of Stewart herself.

"So, student, what is the answer to my very vague and esoteric question?" a bearded senior physician asks her in one panel. "Student? Student?"

Stewart's cartoon eyes grow wide. She fails to come up with a response. Finally, her head opens like a tin can, and her brain flies away.

Her followers, many of them fellow med students, responded with knowing remarks. "Relatable," commented one. "Literally me today and most every day," said another.

Then there was this telling response from a physician nicknamed drneel1973: "What's funny is I used to be that student and now I am the attending asking the vague and esoteric question."

Stewart's work gets a big thumbs-up from another medical illustrator with Philadelphia roots:  Mike Natter, who drew his way through med school at Jefferson University and is now a second-year resident in internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.

"She's phenomenal," Natter said. "Her consistent and eloquent style tells a rich narrative of the trials and tribulations of this crazy, stressful, and rewarding journey it takes to become a doctor."

Stewart, 26, has always liked to draw, and when she first posted her illustrations on Instagram a few years ago with the handle @maidoodles, they were not about medicine. One is a whimsical drawing of herself riding on the back of a fish, for example, while another shows her frolicking in autumn leaves. She made no mention of her ties to medicine.

"I wanted an escape from that," she said.

Then she realized humor would be a good way to cope with the grind. The act of drawing provides a release, as does the feedback from others who share her pain.

"At times, I feel like I'm going insane a little bit," she said. "It was kind of nice to see so many people had similar experiences. It saved me from that feeling."

Mai Stewart uses an iPad to draw images from the world of medicine — both cartoons and instructional illustrations such as this one about heart failure.
JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mai Stewart uses an iPad to draw images from the world of medicine — both cartoons and instructional illustrations such as this one about heart failure.

While most of the images are cartoons, a few are instructional, part of a project she is doing for her studies at Temple. One illustration depicts a myocardial infarction — a heart attack — with clear labels that drew praise from her followers.

"Wait, do I see a medical diagram WITHOUT an overwhelming amount of labels?" wrote one commenter with the handle @chronicle.of.nadia.

Stewart grew up in Montclair, N.J., and Lancaster, where she attended high school. She studied biomedical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, then worked at a medical software company for a year to get a taste of the job market before starting med school at Temple.

Early on, she used watercolor and ink for her artwork. Lately she does most drawings on her iPad, using software called Procreate — allowing her the mobility to work in a coffee shop or any other spot that presents itself.

An early promoter of her artwork was classmate David Pioquinto of Boca Raton, Fla. For one elective class at Temple, the two were paired up for an exercise designed to hone their powers of observation. They visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they took turns describing a painting in words while the other, without seeing the artwork, sketched it based on that description. Pioquinto was dazzled by her effort, and started spreading the word about her talent among their Temple classmates.

"The illustrations show things everyone is thinking as a medical student," he said.

Stewart's family members are less certain about her medical humor.

"My parents think I'm too negative," she said.

Some of Stewart's humor is biting, for sure. But if med schools say they want students to work on their powers of observation, it would be harder to imagine a more keen observer of medicine than this young woman armed with an iPad.