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California and the West

Student Inspired by the Way She Started

Medicine: Woman born premature 17 years ago participates in an internship with the doctor who cared for her.

November 05, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Dr. Feizal Waffarn still marvels at the premature baby girl born 17 years ago--tipping the scales at 2 pounds, 1 ounce--and at the slim chance he and other specialists gave her of surviving.

Michaela Jobes was delivered at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach on Feb. 19, 1981, 2 1/2 months early, under the most trying circumstances. Her mother had gone into labor on a flight from London to Los Angeles.

Shortly after her birth, Michaela was transferred to UC Irvine Medical Center's neonatal unit, where she went into cardiac arrest and was revived by nurses. Her weight dropped to 1 pound, 7 ounces.

"It was a premature birth. Her heart stopped. She was at risk for brain damage. Frankly, it didn't look good for Michaela," Waffarn said.

Even if she lived, he was not optimistic about her potential quality of life.

Now Michaela, a Carlsbad High School senior, is back at UC Irvine Medical Center. But this time she is on a three-month internship, learning from Waffarn and others about new technology that has greatly improved the survival chances of premature babies, and moving one step closer to her dream of becoming a doctor.

Michaela not only survived, she flourished. She is an honor student and an athlete--running sprints and hurdles in track and playing basketball, soccer and softball.

Waffarn, professor of pediatrics at UC Irvine and chief of the medical center's neonatal unit, said Michaela is the first of hundreds of premature babies he cared for over the last 25 years to seek him out as an adult.

"It gives me goose bumps to remember her as she was and see her now as a beautiful young woman. After her mother checked her out, I didn't see her again until a few months ago, when she asked if she could visit me to talk about a school internship she wanted to do. I was overwhelmed," Waffarn said.

As Michaela walked through the neonatal unit with Waffarn and the nurses who care for the "preemies" hooked up to respirators and monitors, she said she could not picture herself in an incubator, fragile and helpless.

"I think, 'No way was I that small.' But I spent the first four months of my life here. . . . When I arrived, my size was small, but now I would be considered one of the bigger premature babies," she said.

Last weekend was the second of Michaela's internship. Commuting from her San Diego County home, she spends six to eight hours on Saturday or Sunday at the center.

Sunday she got to review the five-volume medical file from her stay in the neonatal unit.

Michaela said that although her mother, Valerie, has told her about the experience, looking at her hospital records provided an opportunity to see it from another perspective.

Over the years, Michaela said, she often thought about her near-death experience as a premature infant and wondered if she should go into medicine.

About two years ago, during a visit with the nurses who cared for her as a baby, Michaela decided to aim for medical school.

"It really hit me then. That's when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I want to work with these kids and give them the same chance at life that I got," she said.

"I want to major in biomedicine or bioengineering. I'm ready for the challenge because I've always been one to challenge myself," she said. "My life began in a difficult way, and I've never taken the easy way out."

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