Farmworker to Surgeon: Immigrant Lives Dream Twenty years ago, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa hopped a border fence from Mexico into the U.S. and became a migrant farmworker. Today he is a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University, and a researcher who is looking for a breakthrough in the treatment of brain cancer.
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Farmworker to Surgeon: Immigrant Lives Dream

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Farmworker to Surgeon: Immigrant Lives Dream

Farmworker to Surgeon: Immigrant Lives Dream

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Every once in a while, you come across a life story that is so extraordinary you just have to tell it. Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa has one of those life stories.

Dr. ALFREDO QUINONES-HINJOSA (Neurosurgeon): The world stops for me when I'm in the operating room. In this - some of the most pleasant moments that I have - my eyes are in this human brain, and I'm doing things that I never thought that one day I would be doing.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Q - as many of his students and patients call him - is a 38-year-old brain surgeon and a cancer researcher and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, with a degree from Harvard Medical School. But just 20 years ago, Quinones was a migrant farm worker, an illegal Mexican immigrant who spoke no English.

On a recent visit to Johns Hopkins, Dr. Quinones greets me, fresh from the operating room, still in scrubs, with a warm smile and handshake. But he never really stops moving. As we walked down the long corridor to his office, I have trouble keeping up, and my legs are a good bit longer than his.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I was taking it easy to...

ELLIOTT: You move fast.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I, you know, I feel that going from point A to point B, it's just the actual motion has to be quick, you know, because I think that this potential time that I can be using doing something else.

ELLIOTT: You just came from surgery this morning. Can you tell us what you were doing?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Yes. I had a patient with a very dangerous brain tumor right in the deep portions of the brain that - by many people consider to be inoperable. And unfortunately, the corridor through which one can approach this tumor, involved motor function. So I actually had to map the motor function of this patient to make sure that we left that intact. The patient woke up, everything looks good and hopefully, we'll get a diagnosis in a few days. So that's what I did this morning in a, you know, in a young patient.

ELLIOTT: That must be a lot of pressure, to be so precise that you don't affect someone's ability to function.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: You know, I am very thankful for what I do everyday. Our brains were not meant to be opened by humans, I mean, this is - the brain is a sanctuary, our skulls are fixed. And if nature intended for us to open our brains, you know, they would have given us some sort of window.

And I would joke whenever I talk to the students, I would say, you know, I came from illegally entering this country to now everyday illegally entering the brain. So the students get a kick out of that one, obviously.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit about your background. Tell me about the town where you grew up in Mexico?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I grew up in a small little farming community outside of Mexicali. Mexicali is a bordering town between Mexico and the United States. And I knew up about 60 kilometers down south, with no running water, you know. And I started working in a small gas station when I was five years old.

ELLIOTT: Your father owns a small gas station.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Yes. This small little gas station, I mean, the first pumps that we had were the ones where you literally used to pump mechanical pumps. And my earliest memory that I can now recollect in my brain is when I was three years old. My little sister died of the number one cause of death at the time and presently in Third World countries, which is diarrhea.

And that was some of my most earliest memory. I remember seeing the little coffin where my sister was situated and my family around. My mom crying with another newborn because she was a twin sister. You know, I don't know if that was a moment that defined the rest of my life, but I'm sure certainly it has played a significant role.

ELLIOTT: Quinones says that even though his family was poor during those early years of his life, they always had enough to eat. Then came Mexico's economic crisis of the late 1970s.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: And it was around that time that my father couldn't even put food in our table. And my dad used to use himself as an example to me and tell me, you know, if you want to not have enough to even put food in your children's table one day, just don't go to school, and you'll be exactly like me.

So I was very lucky that I had, sort of, that sort of fire was ignited in me.

ELLIOTT: Alfredo Quinones stayed in school any by the age of 18, he was trained as a teacher. Still, he couldn't earn enough to support his family. The promise of the north beckoned.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: So I put $65 in my pocket and I hopped the fence. And the very first time I was caught, and I was sent back to my country. And I always - and that was one of the things I always also tell my students - perseverance. I just went back, right back.

ELLIOTT: The second time you get through...

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I got through.

ELLIOTT: And what do you do?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Just started to work in the fields as a migrant farm worker. That was my first duty.

ELLIOTT: Do you have any pictures of your early days in this country?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: This is a picture. This was my famous home when I first came into the United States. And I look back now because, you know, I paid $300 for this thing. That's when I learned one of my very valuable lessons as I was growing in the - coming in the United States, that sometimes people will take advantage of you.

ELLIOTT: Now this is dilapidated. It looks like - 's not even a trailer. It's like a camper that goes on the back of a truck.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: That's correct. And what's on the floor, and it is severely damaged, as you can see.

ELLIOTT: There's no door.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: There's no door...

ELLIOTT: Just wet wood.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: And it's like in the middle of the fields right here, but I needed a place to live.

ELLIOTT: Quinones says a few months after he arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, he was able to get temporary papers to work in the fields legally. He didn't mind the physical labor, but he had a revelation - the day his cousin told him he would spend the rest of his life a migrant farm worker.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: And it felt as if a dagger had just come through my heart. And I just remember sitting there and thinking to myself, I'm almost 20 years old. I left everything behind. I have nothing to speak for myself. What am I going to do? And I remember tears would just come down, because I realized that a lot of those big dreams that I had when I first came to the United States were beginning to fade. Not that there's anything wrong with being a migrant farm worker, but it is a lot of hard work.

And I saw how they were treated. I was treated like as if I didn't exist, less than a human being in many occasions. And I just felt that there had to be something better out there.

ELLIOTT: So Alfredo Quinones moved farther north to Stockton, enrolled in a community college and kept on working, this time, in a hard hat.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: The first few jobs that I had were shoveling fish lard and then sulfur, and then I became a welder, yeah. And then you're (unintelligible) you know, I see your facial expressions. Imagine, it was really smelly and stinky. But the thing that I didn't like about the fish lard is that at the same time I was taking English as a second language classes at night, and no student would sit around me because that thing was really smelly. It's - I mean, you can imagine, obviously.

And doing the sulfur that my eyes were really burning all the time. But I tell you, it was in April 14th 1989, I had another one of those defining moments in my life, and that's when I fell into a liquefied petroleum tank car in Stockton, California. This was when I was working as a welder and as a valve specialist for the state of California.

My heart was almost stopped. They had to resuscitate me; I ended up in the unit. And I remember waking up and the first face that I see is in my right hand side, is my father, crying. In the left hand side is this man with a white coat. And I wasn't quite sure what was going on right here, to be honest with you, you know. It was a little bit of a scary moment because I wondered if I had left this world of - while I was sleep, because everything was nebulous, you know. It was a big accident in my life.

But I remember a few seconds and I realized what was going on, and I felt that I was in such terra firma, as we'd say in Latin. I remember feeling so assured by this event, you know, that I immediately knew that someone was taking care of me. And that also left a long-lasting impression in my life.

ELLIOTT: You felt safe there in the hospital.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I felt safe, absolutely.

ELLIOTT: After he recovered and finished community college, Quinones enrolled at UC Berkeley on a scholarship. He majored in psychology and his mentors encouraged him to go to Harvard for medical school. That's where Alfredo Quinones became a U.S. citizen, and got his first glimpse at the human brain exposed.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: You know, I realized, how can I have missed this beautiful organ? I saw it pulsating. I saw how wonderful and how complex it was. I fell in love immediately. But I was afraid, though. I'm not going to lie to you. Because you see, brain surgery, like many professions in medicine, are fad to be for people who come from a long lineage of either physicians or neurosurgeons, so I was afraid as to do I really have what it takes.

ELLIOTT: How do you think your extraordinary background and the story of your life affects the way that you deal with your patients?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I think that it allows me to see things in a slightly different perspective. To me, it doesn't matter if you are the wealthiest person in the world, or the least privileged person in the world. If you're homeless, if you smell - I always try to extenderize(ph) my interaction with my patients.

Everybody gets a handshake. Everybody gets for me to sit on their bed with them. I try to have that proximity, because I cannot conceive a more intimate relationship between a physician and a patient than doing brain surgery. If they're going to allow me to go in and touch their brain, affect their memories, affect their functions, you know.

We all talk about trying to be fair to everybody, but I think in my case, because I know what it's like for my parents not to have insurance, for my parents not to get phone calls from physicians. For myself, even now, as a brain surgeon at Hopkins, when my parents go and see a physician and I call that physician, I still don't get an answer. No one believes when my parents tell them that they have a son who's a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins.

They probably think that my mom or my dad, when they go to the physicians, they think that this cannot be possible because they cannot - they don't speak English, they're very poor. So I know what it's like to be on the other side and not be treated well. And I feel very strongly that I don't want to do that to my patients, to be honest with you.

ELLIOTT: As we listen to your story, I'm sure our listeners are thinking in their minds about the debate over immigration in the United States right now. I wonder, as you look back on your journey, do you feel justified in your decision to come into this country illegally?

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I don't think there's a justification, to be honest with you. The best way, and I have thought about it very much, all I can tell you that every time I think about this - when I first came, I wasn't thinking that I was breaking the law by coming to this country. All I wanted to do is have enough money to eat. Period. That's all I had in my mind. It's that how can I make money so I can at least put food on the table of my parents, my siblings, and my future children.

So now, suddenly, now that I am, you know, here as a brain surgeon, I get to think about it and I realized that I did, you know, I did break the law. I came illegally, and I was very lucky that I was given a break by this wonderful country. And I owe it so much. And I am dedicating, it is my journey and my responsibility to make it even a better place for all of us to be.

So that's all I can say. I can only speak from my own experience, to be honest with you.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for talking with us today.

Dr. QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Oh, thank you. My pleasure. It's an absolute pleasure. And thank you for coming to visit me and going out of your way, obviously, to spend some time with us here in the laboratory.

ELLIOTT: By the way, the laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is where Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa is working to find a new treatment for brain cancer. He does that in the evenings, after seeing patients and performing surgeries all day. Then he goes home fast as he can to his wife and three young children. To see photos of where Dr. Quinones lived when he was a migrant farm worker, go to our Web site -

Our story was produced by Alice Winkler.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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