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Born premature, Dot teen now sets sights on pre-med

Daniela Caride | 10/19/2008, 6:23 a.m.
Though she weighed just 1 pound, 14 ounces at birth, Uniqua Mason (right) fought her way past the dangers that face a premature baby. Now, with the support of her mother Jamilah (left), the happy, healthy 17-year-old is interning at Boston Medical Center, the first step toward her goal of becoming a neonatologist and helping other babies fight for their futures. Daniela Caride

When Uniqua Mason was born on Oct. 15, 1991, she weighed just 1 pound, 14 ounces. Her mother, Jamilah, gave birth after a pregnancy that lasted only 24 weeks.

Newborn Uniqua — who “could fit in the palm of my hand,” Jamilah recalled — spent the first three months of her life as a patient at Boston Medical Center (BMC). At first, Jamilah was devastated, aware and in fear of the dangers her daughter had to face because she was born premature.

Uniqua overcame the dangers, and now, as a perfectly healthy teenager, has returned to BMC to help other babies fight for their futures.

She has taken an internship at BMC’s Breastfeeding Center, pursuing her dream of becoming a neonatologist — a doctor who specializes in the care, development and diseases of newborn infants.

“Uniqua is just an inspiration to everyone,” said Anne Merewood, director of the Breastfeeding Center at BMC and assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “[It] makes everyone feel that the hard work and devotion of the hospital staff and families really pays off when a wonderful young woman like Uniqua turns up 17 years later and wants to be a neonatologist herself. She is well on her way to realizing her goals.”

A junior at Boston Community Leadership Academy, Uniqua interns at BMC three days a week, entering data on mothers who nurse their babies into the center’s computer system. She’s learning a lot in her time at the center — “[B]reast milk … is healthier for the first few months of life,” for example.

Uniqua found the internship through the Boston Public Schools’ Summer of Opportunity Program, which helps high school students find one-year placements in the workplace. She will finish her placement in June.

The internship is just the first step in what will be a long journey of studies for Uniqua. To become a neonatologist, she must complete 15 years of education after graduating from high school — four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, four years of pediatric residency training and three years of neonatology fellowship training.

She can’t wait.

“I am so excited,” the teenager said during an interview in the living room of her family’s Dorchester apartment.

Uniqua is especially enthusiastic about starting the journey at Boston Medical Center. While BMC isn’t the closest medical option for her family, the quality of care and the relationships she’s built there have kept her coming back.

“It’s like home — my second home,” she said.

In truth, it was her first home.

When Uniqua was 13, she watched her first nephew’s delivery.

“[Nobody could] watch it … I was just, like, amazed,” she said.

The experience made her curio us about her own birth, so she asked her mother how she was born. The next birth she watched was a video of her own. It stunned her.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” Uniqua said. “I was so tiny.”

Uniqua had to stay in the incubator for three months. It was two and a half months before Jamilah got to hold the infant in her arms for the first time.

“You would have thought I lived at the hospital, because I was there every single day for three months,” said Jamilah, who had two boys and a girl before Uniqua.

After learning about her beginnings, Uniqua began to develop a strong curiosity about newborns, leading her to consider pediatrics as a career. Her desire to become a neonatologist was confirmed last year, when she shadowed Dr. Vincent Smith at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She watched several deliveries that day — including the birth of a 1-pound baby.

When she got home, the first thing she did was deliver the news to her mother.

“I really want to give mothers hope because I was premature, and I was 1 pound, and I made it,” Uniqua said.