New Fellow Sarika Mullapudi on Her Journey to ASF and How She Partnered with UAB’s AIM

What program are you in and what type of medicine do you hope to practice? 

I am a student at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, and I just finished my 1st year of medical school! I came into medical school with an interest in oncology because of some prior research and volunteer experiences, but I am keeping an open mind because there is still so much more to explore. I still have no idea what specialty I will end up choosing because I like everything.  

Where did your interest in combining art and well-being come from? 

I had heard about the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship on my medical school interview trail and immediately knew this was a program that I really wanted to be a part of. This happened to be around the same time that I taught myself how to knit. Finishing a project brought me so much joy and satisfaction that I began to think of ways that I could incorporate knitting/artwork and service while I was in medical school.  

When I was in college, I volunteered a lot with Child Life at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Inpatient Pediatric Cancer Unit and Emergency Department. I loved being able to use play and art to help children cope with their illnesses and provide a well-needed distraction. As I started medical school and interacted with adult patients in the hospital, I learned that there isn’t really a perfect equivalent in the adult world for some of the services that Child Life volunteers provide for pediatric patients. Patients are often confined to their rooms, surrounded by beige walls, oftentimes coping with their illness all alone. 

I had read about the work that groups such as Project Knitwell (national organization) and Blazing Hooks and Needles (UAB employee-run knitting group) were doing as they used knitting as a way to help patients and families promote wellness and resilience throughout their illnesses. I thought these programs provided a great framework to build upon, so I decided to partner with Arts in Medicine in order to really emphasize the group and community aspect so that patients would be able to create a community of support as they joined fellow patients in a knitting group. 

Are you a knitter or artist yourself? 

I grew up playing the piano and absolutely loved it. It taught me the importance of patience in learning a new skill. Deciphering sheet music was like learning a new language, and playing each note allowed me to communicate through a form of universal expression that didn’t require words. There’s no end destination in playing the piano; it takes you wherever you want to go so long as you are willing to learn. I think the same can be said for any form of art. 

I actually taught myself how to knit just under two years ago. I wanted to make something unique for my cousin’s newborn, so I decided to knit a blanket. The next day, I bought some needles and yarn, and I made the blanket in just a few weeks! I found it to be a very calming activity, as once you pick up the basic techniques, the motions become repetitive and almost therapeutic. I am still very much a novice, but if I can learn how to knit, I know anyone else can! 

How did you connect with UAB’s Arts In Medicine (AIM) and how do you see this community partner aiding in your project? 

When applying to ASF, I had AIM in mind as a partner site. As I started reaching out to faculty to find academic mentors, every single person pointed me to Kimberly Kirklin and AIM. I am so grateful to be able to work with them. 

There are only a handful of hospitals around the country that have similar programs as UAB’s AIM, so UAB is very lucky! As I’ve met with former and current cancer patients while developing my project plan, I’ve learned about how AIM has helped patients cope with their cancer diagnoses both during and after treatment. Patients having nothing but stellar review of AIM because they say it adds another layer to holistic care.