Image from "The Vitals: The True Nurse Stories."

Usually, you earn hero status in a comic book by combating some kind of monstrous, implacable evil. Wearing tights and a cape helps, too.

Eight nurses from Allegheny Health Network (AHN) are the heroes of a new comic book, fighting the monstrous, implacable and very real evil of Covid. Instead of capes, they wear scrubs and PPE (personal protective equipment).

Marvel Comics — the home of Spider-Man and Iron Man, among many others — has just released a new comic starring AHN Nurses called The Vitals: True Nurse Stories.

“At Marvel, we tell stories about heroes every day,” says Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Entertainment. “But this story is special. It tells a story about our everyday heroes — the nurses and healthcare professionals working tirelessly and courageously to save lives. Along with AHN, we are honored to help tell these stories, which we dedicate to the real heroes who are saving the world.”

The word heroes gets thrown around lightly these days, but if anyone deserves it, it’s Covid care nurses.

“Everyone talks about how nurses are empathetic, kind and compassionate and caring,” says Claire Zangerle, chief nurse executive at AHN. “But we have other adjectives for our nurses — they’re also critical thinkers, problem-solvers and innovators. We wanted something that brought some strength to the description of our nurses, and that demonstrated what they did.”

Image from The Vitals: The True Nurse Stories.

There are three main stories in the comic, that weave together a realistic portrayal of life in the Covid unit. The first is about a nurse who, tiring of the hassle of fitting her long hair into PPE, shocks her family by shaving her head. It’s based on a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Erie named Maria Fiorino, says Zangerle.

“The stories that the comic portrays are very realistic, and very true to a lot of the stuff that we see in the Covid unit,” says Jessi Showalter, a nurse at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, who is featured in the comic. “I don’t know a nurse that actually shaved her hair, but I know a lot of male nurses had to shave their facial hair off in order for the face masks to fit properly.”

The idea was kind of a shot in the dark that unexpectedly paid off.

“We were kind of noodling with our marketing department about how do we recognize our nurses in a way that may be a little unique?” says Zangerle. “There’s only so many meals you can bring them, there’s only so many t-shirts you can give them.”

Someone in the marketing department compared nurses to Wonder Woman, notes Zangerle, and soon the idea took off.

“They pitched it to Marvel and they bit!” she says. “We couldn’t believe it.”

They were asked to send Marvel some real-life nursing stories. AHN nurses submitted about 800.

Marvel sent writer Sean Ryan (who has worked on a lot of Spider-Man titles) to Pittsburgh, for a first-person look. He narrowed it down to three stories.

So far, it’s gotten a lot of attention — and, hopefully, is a morale boost for the nurses, who are really being pushed to their limits by Covid right now.

Jessi Showalter, a nurse depicted in The Vitals.

“We were on CBS This Morning yesterday and we were on CNN today,” says Zangerle. “It is the shot in the arm they needed right after Thanksgiving and going into this Christmas holiday.”

This is going to be a terribly hard month, and everybody is trying to prepare as much as possible.

“The model tells us that mid-December, it’s going to get really, really tough,” says Zangerle. “Because it will be the fallout from Thanksgiving, people out shopping, people hanging out outside their bubbles because it’s the holidays and people are celebrating and getting together. That’s not a good thing, unfortunately.”

The comic should also help kids understand a bit about what the nursing profession involves, in the middle of a once-a-century worldwide crisis.

“We can distribute this comic book to secondary and primary schools,” says Zangerle. “So that we can show kids what nurses are doing. Kids love comic books. They will pick this up and say, ‘I want to be a nurse.’”

It’s not just kids who read comics.

“Yesterday, we got 35 nurses from nursing agencies calling us, within three hours, wanting to talk about positions with us at AHN,” explains Zangerle. “We’re recruiting agency nurses and travelers because we don’t have enough nurses right now to fill all of our holes. We’re making do, but we have to use supplemental labor.”

Image from Marvel’s The Vitals.
Image from Marvel’s The Vitals.

There’s a national nursing shortage right now which was true even before the pandemic, says Zangerle.

The comic can help people understand a little bit about what nurses do, notes Showalter.

“It’s kind of hard, unless you’re in the situation, to fully grasp it,” Showalter says. “I think the stories portrayed are very realistic. Hopefully it will spark an interest with the general population about what we’re going through. And hopefully inspire people to stay protected. I know we’re getting tired of social distancing and masking. Hopefully, it will inspire people to keep going a little bit longer.”

Print copies of the comic were snatched up very quickly, and AHN is not sure when more are coming. So for the time being, the best way to read the comic is online.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.