Neurosurgeon Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

Originally aired on October 20, 2011

The author of Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon offers his take on the current immigration debate in the U.S.

Now an internationally renowned neurosurgeon-neuroscientist who leads cutting-edge brain cancer research, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa began life in the U.S. as an undocumented migrant worker. After toiling in central California's tomato fields, he graduated from UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School with honors and is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, where he also directs the Brain Tumor Surgery and Pituitary Surgery programs and heads the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory. Quiñones-Hinojosa recounts his amazing life story in his memoir, Becoming Dr. Q.


Tavis: Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, or Dr. Q, as he is simply known, is a renowned neurosurgeon and director of the Pituitary Tumor Center at Johns Hopkins University. His remarkable path from Mexico to the United States is the subject of the new memoir, “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.” Dr. Q, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa: Tavis, I am –

Tavis: I just want to touch those hands. (Laughter) Yeah.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: I am absolutely honored to be here with you.

Tavis: It is my delight to have you here. Let me just jump right into it. I was thinking on the way into the studio today that if Herman Cain had his way, you would have been electrocuted (laughter) trying to hop that fence from Mexico to the United States.

So let’s just deal with this right now – what’s your sense of this immigration debate in the country now, given that you have to be the poster child for what happens to America when we treat with dignity and respect people, given their humanity?

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Well, I’ve got to tell you, Tavis, it is – I read in the newspaper today, and it breaks my heart when I hear things like that, obviously, because I look back at my life and on my history, when I first came in the mid to late ’80s and I was welcomed.

This country opened its arms and said, “Come in and become a migrant farm worker and pay your taxes and you’ll eventually become a U.S. citizen. I went on to become a welder, the same thing happened. Now, as you can imagine, even in my own life as a brain surgeon, I hear comments sometimes, people write about how I shouldn’t be here, I took someone else’s spot because someone else deserved to be where I am today.

It breaks my heart, because this country, the United States, was built on the backs of immigrants. We all came to this country with a dream, and I had that dream. So when I hear comments like this, it really breaks my heart. There’s nothing that I can do to change it, Tavis. As you know, I continue to do my job as a brain surgeon, as a researcher, and I try to make it better and better every day, not only for my patients but for their families, for my family and for the future generations of our country.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago that I’ve heard at various points in my career as well; that is, that you took somebody else’s spot. Doesn’t matter how much you excel, how high quality your work is, no matter what your contributions are to the country, there’s always somebody who complains that you took somebody’s spot; never mind that there’s so few of us and so many of them. You took somebody’s spot.

So when you hear that you took somebody’s spot at Harvard medical school, when you hear that you took somebody’s spot at Johns Hopkins University, what do you hear when you hear that particular comment?

Quiñones-Hinojosa: I hear hate. I hear people who clearly don’t have a great understanding of the American dream. That the American dream is based on hard work and dedication, determination, resilience, excitement, mentorship, help and love for each other.

I hear that we are suffering, that we’re going through a difficult time in our country, no question about it, but I think that we’re making the same mistakes that we have made through hundreds of years, which is we turn around and we say, “Who’s guilty? Who can we blame today for the fact that we have an incredibly high unemployment rate?”

I think – and it breaks my heart, once again, to hear those comments and to hear the amount of hate that people have in the United States nowadays is disheartening. However, I still have hope that we have not reached the pinnacle, and that’s exactly the reason why I decided to write this story of adventures, brushes with death.

As you remember, the last few chapters of my book is all about what I do with my patients, how they and their families inspire me and how they are battling some of the most incredible diseases that affect the human body.

Tavis: I started this program earlier by saying I want to just touch your hands, (laughter) because your hands are obviously very gifted, but it is quite a story for hands that are as gifted as yours are to start out as a migrant worker. You were a farmer in the field using these very same hands.

You become a welder using these very same hands, and eventually, as the story goes, of course, you become a brain surgeon, neurosurgeon, using these very same hands. Tell me about these hands.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: I tell you, you know how in sports baseball players, they hit home runs. Football players, they throw and they score touchdowns. I get to do something that very few people get to do – I get to touch the human brain, and every day I get to hit home runs, I get to score touchdowns, and the greatest gratification that I get to work with these hands is that when I come out and I go to the waiting room and speak and talk to the families of my patients, I get standing ovations and I get tears and they look at me as superhuman and superhero.

No amount of money, no amount of anything can ever compare to that feeling – to know that these very same hands used to do things, used to put the food on the table that we eat today, are doing the things that I do today. I’m just a regular guy, Tavis. I want people to realize that I’m just – I embody the true American dream. I work hard. I went to school.

I’m not a genius. I just worked really, really hard, and I want our generation, our children and our future generations to realize that they can fulfill the same dreams.

Tavis: What do you make, then, of this debate about the Dream Act?

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Well, I think it’s going on obviously right now in California. What I make of it is the fact that we are trying. I think we are trying to implement smart laws that will allow us to keep good people and hopefully to promote their growth, no different than what they did, Ronald Reagan in the late ’80s did with me when I first came to the United States.

So it gives me hope that there are good people thinking how can we deal with the situation right now, and Tavis, I tell you, I don’t have a solution. I’m not a politician, I’m not an economist. I’m just a simple Brian surgeon and a scientist who’s trying to do my best every day.

But I do recognize that there are people who are thinking very hard about this, and I congratulate them.

Tavis: Tell me how – I want to go back to the beginning now – at 19 you eventually make your way here. You didn’t get over the fence the first time you tried. I’ll let you tell the story. (Laughter) But at 19 you eventually make your way here, but tell me how you got here and what you were coming here for in the first place.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: It was very simple, Tavis. When I first came here, as I recollect the stories in my book, people had died. This is still the only country where people die to try to come in and fulfill the American dream, and one of my uncles never made it back, my mom’s brother.

So that was obviously in the back of my mind all the time, but I was willing to risk my life. All I wanted to do was to go back to my mother, my father, and put food on the table, because we did not even have anything to eat – literally.

So I wanted to do that, simply. So when I first came I got sent back and I made it again, all right, in my early years, after growing up in very humble backgrounds. I made it again and I ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, not far away from here, from where you are in L.A., and I started working in the fields.

Eventually, I went from picking tomatoes to driving some of the most sophisticated stuff, and people asked me, “What is different about picking tomatoes, driving all these incredible machines where I got to sit like an astronaut, and I used to dream about being an astronaut when I was a little kid; I watched “Star Trek,” and I know you’ve got a “Star Trek” today. (Laughter)

So I tied it to that, so I used to think about this, and I did it. So the same skills that I used as a welder, as a migrant farm worker, are similar skills that I’m using today as a brain surgeon. If you look at some of the clips of me in the operating room, I sit in the chair, I control the microscope with my mouth, I connect, my hands are always working in the brain, my feet are controlling everything.

So I’m completely connected, just like I did when I was working in the fields. So a lot of those skills have become very useful. Very few people realize that. I talk about all these things. You have to have passion for everything you do, and you’ve got to look at the positive side.

Doesn’t matter how menial may be the job that you’re doing today. If you have dreams, that will turn into something positive in the future.

Tavis: Although you will admit that the brain is a little bit more sensitive than a tomato.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Of course. No question. (Laughter)

Tavis: Just a little bit.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: A little bit –

Tavis: You can smash a tomato and get another one. It’s a little bit different with the human brain.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Oh, the stakes are much higher.

Tavis: The stakes are much higher, yeah. (Laughs)

Quiñones-Hinojosa: The stakes are much higher, but I tell you, it’s a lot of – the things that we take for granted every single day are the things that really make us who we are today. And I talk, I have funny stories in my book, and overall, I think of myself as a funny guy.

I’m a regular guy, I like to sit with my residents, with my students, I like to be in the lab on Friday nights, I talk about that, my laboratory meetings. I have passion for life. I love what I do.

Tavis: How did you get from – again, it’s all detailed in the book, but for the sake of time here tell me how you eventually got on the track to become the researcher, to become the neurosurgeon that you are from those fields? How did you get into the education track?

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Beautiful question. The education track, as I tried to learn English in community college I got the mentorship from the people. They saw something in me. By the time I ended up at UC Berkeley I had an opportunity to work in a laboratory.

I remember one of my first mentors, Joe Martinez, who I talk about this in the book, said to me, “I will take you into my laboratory, but you are here to explore the universe of the brain,” and he tied it back to my dreams of being an astronaut when I was a little kid.

I got to do this early on in my career as a researcher at US Berkeley where I used to go into the brains of small, little animals and study the way that brains were connected and how little did I know that one day that was going to be my future – exploring the universe of the brain and hold it in between my hands and look at cells migrating.

My laboratory is probably one of the few in the world where we can see human cells migrating in human brain. So we take that tissue from the operating room and instead of throwing it away I make my patients part of history, Tavis.

I tell them, “You are going to be part of history, and you are fighting an incredible disease – brain cancer.” Senator Kennedy died, doesn’t matter how much power, how much money you have, we all die one day, and unfortunately, patients with brain cancer die much faster.

But I make them part of history, I give them hope, and that’s the business that I’m in.

Tavis: I’ve got 45 seconds. To your point now, how much progress, thanks to the work of people like you in labs like yours, how much progress are we making on these illnesses that attack our brain?

Quiñones-Hinojosa: I would say that in my humble opinion over the next 20 to 30 years we are going to see solutions, real solutions, for problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, brain cancer, thanks to the work that not only my group is doing, but several groups around the world.

Tavis: I said earlier he’s a poster child for immigration reform around this country. (Laughter) Something we ought to get serious about. He is a wonderful neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. His name is Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, better known, thankfully for the rest of us, as Dr. Q. (Laughs) His book is called “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.” I am honored, sir, to touch these hands one more time.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Well, let me touch your hands.

Tavis: I appreciate it. Thank you. Good to have you here.

Quiñones-Hinojosa: Same here.

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Last modified: October 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm