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Adrian Walker

A young medical star

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / August 4, 2009

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It’s one thing to find your vocation early, but Melissa Rocha was truly precocious.

She was in junior high school when she settled on her career choice: surgery. “To this day, I cannot figure out how this passion began, but I know it’s been there since the seventh grade, and it’s just been growing,’’ she said yesterday.

At the time, Melissa and her mother and brother were living in a homeless shelter in downtown Boston. But it never crossed her mind that her personal struggles could be an impediment to her dreams.

Three weeks from now, Rocha is off to college. She has been admitted to a highly competitive program at the University of Rochester that guarantees admission to its medical school to students who maintain the necessary grade point average.

In short, she is on a glide path to medical school, and she is only 18.

She just graduated from the Health Careers Academy, a Boston charter school, which gave her a firm foundation for medical school. But her success was also paved by her involvement in the Students Success Jobs Program, which pairs Boston high school students with mentors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Rocha lives in South Boston, but grew up mostly in Dorchester. When her parents split up, the family was homeless for a couple of years. It took her mother a while to find work, but she eventually got a job at Burger King, where she still works.

In ninth grade, she gave a talk to her classmates about being a surgeon. In 10th grade, she wrote a paper on the psychological effects of gay marriage. All that was preparation for working in a major teaching hospital.

Rocha’s first assignment at the Brigham was working in a lab. It wasn’t what she expected. “I didn’t think I would like it because I had a preconceived notion that it would be boring.’’

It’s a little jarring to hear a teenager talk about “the highlight of my life,’’ but her experience there was truly formative. “I learned what scientists do,’’ she said. “One of the most important things I learned is that research is fundamental to medicine.’’

From there she was assigned to the Burn Trauma Unit, where she got to watch emergency medicine at close range. “I’ve gotten every kind of exposure I ever wanted,’’ she said.

“I’ve seen a lot,’’ she said. “I’ve gotten to see how the department responds to trauma from beginning to end. It’s confirmed that I really do want to be a surgeon.’’

Melissa has acquired a major fan in Dr. Gary Gottlieb, president of Brigham and Women’s. “This young woman is a hero,’’ Gottlieb told me last week. “She’s essentially been accepted to medical school from high school. She’s 18 years old, and she’s going to be a doctor when she’s 26, and there’s nothing standing in her way but her own achievement.’’

Gottlieb, who will become the head of Partners Health Care early next year, is full of praise of the Students Success Jobs Program, which has brought hundreds of high school students into the hospital over the past nine years.

“It allows us to break into local high schools and turn this place into a laboratory,’’ he said. “We have very strong and intimate relationships with them, and we get to immerse them in this very intense and complex place. It’s the greatest gift we can have.’’

He said the hospital owes the students more than the students owe it. “For those young people to allow us the trust of being their mentors at a time when life is uncertain is very special to us.’’

Rocha, for her part, can’t wait to get to Rochester. She spent the weekend shopping for appliances for her dorm, and, from the way she talks, her departure date can’t come soon enough.

But for all her drive she has her diversions, like any young woman. “My guilty pleasure is ‘Guitar Hero,’ ’’ she said laughing. “It’s as close as I’ll ever get to playing guitar.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.