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Patt Morrison Asks: The brain, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

Perspective from a leading U.S. neurosurgeon who made it from illegal-immigrant California farmworker to Harvard Med.

October 01, 2011|Patt Morrison

Here's a Hollywood pitch for you: Leading U.S. neurosurgeon started life as a struggling Mexican boy who made it from illegal-immigrant California farmworker to Harvard Med. Not buying it? You should. Dr. Alfredo QuiƱones-Hinojosa was that kid and is that man -- associate prof, surgeon and head of the brain tumor stem cell lab at Johns Hopkins. His work puts him, passionately, on the cutting-edge of brain cancer research, and his life wedges him, reluctantly, into the immigration quarrel. He tells his story -- his traumas and triumphs, and his patients' -- in an autobiography, "Becoming Dr. Q," and here, now.

You started by working with your hands -- in cotton and tomato fields in California -- and here you are, still working with your hands as a brain surgeon.

I didn't know I was going to be a brain surgeon, and yet I look back and don't see how I could have done anything else. "Rocky IV" -- not my favorite movie but good -- when his wife tells him you can't win: I was told that so many times. He turns around and says, "Even if I don't win, I'm willing to give it all. They're going to have to kill me to defeat me." And I feel that in life. Working as a brain surgeon and scientist -- I was born to do this; all my life, I work with my hands, and here I am, full circle.

You "hopped the fence" for good in 1987. Before that I have to say that you were really lousy at jumping the border. You kept getting caught, forgot your work papers, couldn't lie your way out of a paper bag.

I was terrible! But I just feel blessed that I was able to make it here. I love the United States; there is no country like America in the world. You can imagine how blessed I feel. In my office at Johns Hopkins, the No. 1 department of neurosurgery, I get patients from all over the world. It's not something I take for granted, not at all.

Do people ask whether you know Dr. Greg House, the fictional TV diagnostic genius of Johns Hopkins?

It's so funny you mention that. I'm training for a half-marathon [to benefit brain cancer patients]. I was cross-training on a machine and watching CNN and here he was, the actor. I didn't realize he was from England, and he doesn't have a limp! My wife loves the show; I hear about it from her.

Why did you wait so long to write a book about your story, to tell the world how you came to be here?

When "Hopkins" [a 2008 ABC TV documentary series about Johns Hopkins] was released, I realized I have been always afraid of being stigmatized, of people saying, "Oh, you became famous because of your story rather than your work." I needed first to establish an incredible practice, one of the best brain tumor practices in the world. I needed to establish myself as a scientist. I needed to get federal funds to do research on brain tumors. I am the editor of the bible of brain surgery. I needed to accomplish all those things and then tell my story. That was a big deal for me. I'm just a regular guy. It took awhile to decide to tell the story the way I see it.

When you actually came out and said, "Yeah, I came here illegally" -- how hard was that?

The first time I said it in public was at lunch with my classmates in medical school in 1994. They asked me how I came to the United States, and I said I hopped the fence -- very matter of fact -- and everybody was laughing. Another of my classmates from Mexico, from a very distinguished family, was laughing too. I kept eating; I didn't really know if I said something funny. I was still translating my lectures into Spanish, so I was learning the culture.

Then they realized I was serious. I began to realize, wow, this is not something trivial, this is something people pay attention to. At UC Berkeley, a tutor told me I couldn't possibly be Mexican because I was too smart. I was intimidated. I was afraid at Harvard; every time I'd be in a situation where people noticed my accent, they were going to ask me where I was from.

So it took many years. When I was chosen by my classmates at Harvard to give the commencement speech, I had to reflect on that, and I said, "All right, this is who I am. It will start [as] a weakness; I can turn it into a strength."

How did you legalize your status?

When I was in community college in Stockton, I had a work authorization, and that became a temporary green card. This was the time of the Ronald Reagan amnesty. I became a permanent resident the year that I started Berkeley, '91, and then a citizen in '97 when I was at Harvard.

People advised you to change your name.

There are some things I feel very strongly about. When I was in the Castle Society at Harvard, friends argued how, for me to be successful, I should change my name to Al Quinn.

In '97, when I was going for citizenship, I realized, I'm not going to go the simple path. If I'm going to be successful in this country, I need to be proud of who I am and my roots.

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