A Story of Inspiration: ‘My Hands Used to Pick Weeds; Now They Perform Brain Surgery’
Brain surgery is without a doubt one of the most challenging and demanding areas of medicine, and Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a surgeon who immigrated illegally from Mexico at age 19 to seek a better life in America, is considered one of the best in this field.
Although his impressive career in brain surgery and research is festooned with awards, accolades and notable research grants, Dr. Quiñones never loses sight of his main purpose: quality patient care.
“Coming out of the operating room and waiting for a patient to wake up perfectly fine is the hardest part of what I do,” says Dr. Quiñones, Professor of Neurosurgery, Oncology, Neuroscience, and Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the renowned Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. “The most rewarding part is when I get to tell the family that everything is OK.”
Dr. Q also directs the brain tumor surgery program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and operates a lab that researches the role of stem cells in brain tumors and brain cancer. He performs more than 250 brain surgeries a year and has saved countless of lives, but it is apparent that he still feels fortunate, even humbled, by the role he plays as a brain surgeon.
This is especially accentuated when he realizes how far he has come since entering America 22 years ago by jumping a border fence to help support his impoverished family in Mexicali, Mexico.
“All of my surgeries are memorable to me,” he admits. “Imagine—my patients trust me with their brains—I get to touch their imaginations, their memories…All brain surgeries make my heart palpitate. My hands used to pick weeds and now they perform surgeries on the most complex organ in the human body.”
His story is indeed remarkable. Referring to his life in Mexicali, Dr. Q says, “I grew up very poor there as a young boy, but I was very happy. I was surrounded by a loving family who embraced my wild imagination.
But in an attempt to seek a better life as he grew older, Dr. Quiñones decided in 1987 to risk coming to America by jumping the fence that separates Mexicali and Calexico, CA. He had no money and spoke no English. “I came out of necessity,” he recalls. “I believed that in the United States I could make something of myself. I also wanted to put food on my parents’ table.” And even though he had earned a college degree in Mexico where he made a meager living as an elementary school teacher, his degree was invalid in the U.S. He knew that further effort and education would be needed to move up in the world.
Once in California, he found menial work, but his life was hard and lonely. “I worked in the tomato and cotton fields pulling weeds, loading railroad freight cars with sulfur and fish lard, and I also worked as a welder … I was all alone with no family for support. I lived in a tiny trailer that I bought for $300.”
Determined to further his education, Dr. Q enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College (a community college) where he attended classes at night after getting off from work. At the college, he came to the attention of instructors who nurtured him. “I was like an uncut diamond, and they could see me shining through the dirty coveralls, steel- toe boots, and raw hands,” says Dr. Q. “Honestly, there is no question, I would not be where I am today without San Joaquin Delta College.”
It was also at San Joaquin Delta that he developed a love for math. “I didn’t have to be fluent in English to understand it,” he laughs. He also enjoyed science and led workshops for other immigrants. In addition to studying English, he eventually became a teaching assistant, which helped when he later applied to the University of California at Berkeley where he graduated with a degree in Psychology after gaining legal immigration status.
From there he attended Harvard Medical School, where he graduated with honors. He completed his residency in Neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco, where he also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental and stem cell biology. His amazing life was recently chronicled on the ABC News documentary series ”Hopkins”. When not pursuing medicine and research (he is currently working on three books on brain surgery), Dr. Q likes spending time with his wife, Anna, and his three young children, Gabriella, David and Olivia. He also enjoys taking his family to the park for long walks as well as watching movies with them.
Thinking back on it all, the seasoned surgeon says with a measured voice: “I believe I was born to do what I do. I’m sure I would have been successful if I had chosen another path, but would anything make me happier? No.”
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