A doctor without borders
From the humblest beginnings in Mexicali, Mexico, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa literally jumped the border fence into the United States for a better future. With a drive and passion unparalleled, he worked to become an internationally renowned neuroscientist and neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Whether he’s comforting a patient, in the operating room, or working on his cutting-edge research, Dr. Q is always approachable, inventive, and driven.
He enters an exam room, sits down on an easy-rolling chair, and greets his patient and their loved ones with a sincere smile and a warm handshake. With an accent endearing and a presence comforting and confident, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa begins every patient consultation the same way—with a modest personal query. “How’s your family,” he’ll say to a post-op patient. Or to someone he’s meeting for the first time a more open-ended “tell me about yourself.” Dr. Quiñones, or Dr. Q as his patients know him, believes that the personal interaction he has with his patients is what makes his job so special. “You can literally train a monkey to do what we do. The challenge in what we do is not in the surgery—it’s in the emotional connection you form with the patients.”
Dr. Quiñones started out as the first-born child of six, growing up outside Mexicali, Mexico. Always the advanced go-getter, he started working at the age of five, selling food to drivers at gas stations to make some extra money for his family. Though they were a poor family, Q himself did exceptionally well in public schools, and graduated with a teaching license from a local college by the time he was 18. He then decided that it was time to join his extended family up north, to advance his career and return to help his family and his country. But that soon became a false dream for young Alfredo.
In 1987, at the age of 19, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa literally jumped the border fence between Mexico and the United States. Border police caught him and sent him back, but later that day he tried again, and succeeded. This however was only the beginning, for he had no money, and at the time couldn’t speak English.
“I knew the risks,” he said. “I had big dreams, and I would rather risk my life than stay in Mexico…I never felt like my life was hard though. It was a privilege for me to be here. I enjoyed every step because I knew it was all leading to something bigger.”
Quiñones made his way to Fresno, California where he worked for two years as a cotton picker, painter, and welder. His home was a trailer patched together with plywood, and he later shared a one-room apartment with five other members of his family. One day in the fields he told his cousin he wanted to go to school, learn English, and have a better future, but his cousin looked at him in amazement and said “this is your future! You came to this country to work in the fields just like us.” Refusing to accept this, Alfredo began putting himself through school, learning English, tutoring other Spanish-speaking students in math and science, practicing his language skills on the debate team, and working as a welder for a railroad company.
It was around this time that he almost died. Still an illegal immigrant, Q was working for the railroad crew on April 14, 1989, when, at just 21 years of age, he fell into an empty petroleum tank, a fall of about 18 feet. Alive, he began climbing up a rope tossed down by his coworkers and watched his whole life flash before his life. As he reached the top and grabbed a hand to help pull him up, Alfredo was overcome by fumes and fell back into the tank once more, this time waking up in an intensive care unit in a nearby hospital.
“I’ve always felt that everything that has happened since then has been a gift. I don’t think I was meant to go beyond that.” It was a miraculous wake-up call, an experience that he tries to give to his patients every day in surgery: you are lucky to be alive, now live your life to its fullest potential.
In 1992, Quiñones happily quit his railroad job for good, and received a scholarship to University of California Berkeley where he majored in psychology. Though he struggled with speaking and writing assignments, Alfredo took many calculus, physics, and chemistry courses to keep his grade point average up. There he found a mentor in the psychology department—Joe Martinez and his neurobiology lab. It captured Q’s imagination. He had big plans. While deciding between law school and medical school he thought of his grandmother. She was a curandera, or village healer, back in Mexicali, Mexico and inspired him to choose medicine. Q did an honors thesis on neuroscience, and was encouraged by Martinez and his other mentor, director of UC Berkeley’s Hispanic Center of Excellence Hugo Mora, to apply to Harvard Medical School, where he was accepted.
At Harvard Alfredo was introduced to Ed Kravitz and his famous neurobiology lab by Martinez. Kravitz was a Bronx street kid who had made Harvard professor by 30 and he and Quiñones bonded instantly. Q himself became very distinguished not only academically, but for his outreach activities helping less fortunate students by giving them a place to stay. His years at Harvard included large amounts of research fellowships and academic honors, his American citizenship, the birth of his daughter, and finally graduating cum laude (with honors) and giving the commencement speech for his Harvard med class of 1999.
For the next six years Dr. Quiñones (as he now officially was) did his internship, residency, and some post-doctoral work at the University of California San Francisco. Over this time he found his true calling as a neurosurgeon and in 2005 his career began at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he became a Professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology, Neurology, and Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Director of the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory. Nowadays, he is the “William J. and Charles H. Mayo Professor” and Chair of Neurologic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.
When he’s not teaching or in the operating room, Dr. Quiñones is in the lab working on his research to try and cure cancer. He believes that there are natural stem cells in the brain that, if put in just the right spot, could halt the spread of cancerous cells in the brain, working more effectively naturally than any surgery or radiation treatment currently in use. There is still a lot of work to be done, but Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa looks forward to a day when he no longer has to feel like he is entering the brain illegally, and cancer becomes an illness no more troublesome than the common cold.
Besides his clinical and research activities, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa is active in education and provides mentorship to many postdoctoral fellows. Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa is co-founder and serves as president of Mission: BRAIN, Bridging Resources and Advancing International Neurosurgery a 501 (c)(3) non-profit foundation.