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VCU medical students donate crocheted creations to patients

The Hooked on Medicine student group spreads their love of creativity and crocheting by giving back to VCU Health.

Medical student in white coat sits on a chair smiling. She is holding up her crocheted jellyfish stuffed animals. Hooked on Medicine founder OreOluwa “Comfort” Aluko with some of the crocheted jellyfish the student interested group recently donated to VCU Health Volunteer Services. (VCU School of Medicine)

By Anthony DePalma

In a quiet study lounge in early January, a half-dozen students from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine sit around various tables in a makeshift circle with crochet hooks and knitting needles in their hands, yarn in their laps. It's the first week back after the winter break, so they chat about the holidays and upcoming semester as they work on knitted beanies and crocheted animals.

The students are part of Hooked on Medicine (HoM), a student interest group that serves as both a creative and social outlet for students and faculty who are interested in crocheting and knitting. They meet twice a month for "Thread Thursdays” — a quiet break in the day to get away from the regular excitement of medical school life.

The crocheted and knitted creations made by the group are donated to VCU Health Volunteer Services, which distributes the items to patients across the health system.

“Medical school is difficult and can be very stressful, and having a creative outlet helps students explore and cultivate interests and skills outside of the medical curriculum,” said HoM founder OreOluwa "Comfort" Aluko, a second-year medical student. "Having a creative outlet helps students step outside of the books and into life. It facilitates great connections and conversations with the people around us, which will help us connect with patients and their families in the future.”

The first stitch

As a child, Aluko learned to knit from her grandmother, and in the fourth grade, she took those foundational skills and applied them to crocheting. Aluko thinks she has crocheted close to 100 items throughout her life, and close to a dozen just last year.

Her favorite item to make is a blanket — they can take upwards of three months to make, she said, but they are especially gratifying because “the crochet patterns are always displayed so beautifully on a big project like that.”

Aluko decided to share her artistic skills with her peers by starting the student group after the first year of medical school wrapped up. The group is open to all students, regardless of their crocheting or knitting abilities. Aluko and other experienced members offer lessons to prospective crocheters. Attendees are welcome to bring their own supplies, but not required to do so — as a student interest group registered with the School of Medicine, HoM uses its funding to help cover the cost of yarn, crochet hooks and other supplies.

Nicole Deiorio, M.D., a VCU Health team member and professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and associate dean for student affairs, attends the meetings both as the group’s faculty adviser and as a knitter — and “a very beginner crocheter” — herself. She’s currently working on a sweater vest for her husband, and says she feels like she’s gotten more out of the group than she’s put in.

“Comfort sets such a nice tone of being welcoming,” Deiorio said. “She’s set up a really comfortable, relaxing environment for people who want to just come and work on their own projects or learn some new skills."

She says it’s important for students to see faculty placing value on non-academic activities, and that groups like HoM help facilitate strong student-faculty relationships.

“We’re getting to know each other in a low-key, casual context,” Deiorio said. “I feel like if we’ve built that connection and trust in this way, it pays dividends when it’s more high stakes.”

crocheted jellyfish stuffed animals in blue, purple and green are on top of a marble coffee table. The toys all have smiley faces on them.

Several crocheted jellyfish Hooked on Medicine made and donated to VCU Health Volunteer Services. (VCU School of Medicine)

Providing “comfort and hope”

Early on, Aluko wanted to donate handmade items from the group to patients, and Volunteer Services at VCU Health were more than happy to accept the donations. At the end of the HoM's first semester, they distributed hats, sweaters and various plush toys.

Amanda Landes, director of VCU Health Volunteer Services, knows firsthand how appreciative patients are of receiving these handmade items.

“They know that someone took the time and effort to craft something that would be given to them to provide comfort and hope,” Landes said.

Last fall, HoM focused on crocheting and donating handmade jellyfish, a popular animal amongst the young patients at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR). The group is now focused on making “granny squares,” small, 4x4 pieces of fabric that members will then be able to put together to make small lap blankets.

Landes says handmade blankets are the most requested items from patients as they provide “warmth and cheerful color in what might otherwise be a regular hospital room."

“Blankets are a very time-consuming project,” Aluko said. “However, breaking it up this way will make the whole process much easier and we hope to get more done."

Although Aluko has formally stepped down as leader of the student group — a common practice for second-year medical students as they prepare to transition into clinical rotations — HoM’s new leader, Paula Petersen, aims to continue Aluko’s efforts by expanding the collaboration between HoM and the greater Richmond community. After a recent meeting with VCU Health Volunteer Services, Petersen says the group hopes to offer crocheting lessons to kids at CHoR and students at local elementary schools.

“Crocheting and knitting is so much fun, even if it’s something small someone is able to take home that day, and we would love to share that fun with more of the Richmond community,” Aluko said.

Three students talking to each other in a classroom. Some of them are holding yarn.

VCU medical students Minna Kim, Catherine Phan and OreOluwa "Comfort" Aluko, founder of Hooked on Medicine, work on their latest projects. (Arda Athman, VCU School of Medicine)