LIFESTYLE

Our American Dream: Story of Mexican teen who scaled border fence to become top neurosurgeon goes to Hollywood

  • Dr. Quinones

    Dr. Quinones  (Courtesy Keith Weller)

  • Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa circa 1990 in San Joaquin Delta College.

    Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa circa 1990 in San Joaquin Delta College.  (Courtesy Dr. Quinones)

If you ask Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa about his-rags-to-riches story, he’ll play it down —  the real story is about what you do with the opportunities that cross your way, he’d say.

Yet his life journey so far has been beyond inspiring, to the point that Disney and Brad Pitt’s production company are already working to take it to Hollywood.

Quiñones-Hinojosa, a traditional healer or curandera’s grandson from the border town of Mexicali, is one of the top neurosurgeons in Johns Hopkins hospital and hence one of the best in the U.S. and the world.

Flashback 30 years however, and you will see a scared teenager crossing the U.S. border illegally all by himself, without knowing a word of English.

He was 19.

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How did it happen?

Dr. Q, as he’s known to patients, nurses and fellow doctors, says goals and purpose led the way ever since he started helping his family’s economy at age 5. By 18 he had graduated with a teaching license from a local college and became increasingly curious as to what was beyond the border fence.

"I tell [my patients] that together we’re going to make history, that they’re part of something larger than their cancer. Together they’re going to help me find a cure."

- Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

“I came to the U.S. to buy high-top Nikes and Ray bans,” he told Fox News Latino in a slightly accented English. “But I eventually realized I needed to set my goals on a larger purpose of changing and influencing the world,” he said.  

After entering the U.S. in a second attempt, he made his way to Fresno, California, and settled there for two years picking cotton, painting and welding.

He put himself through school, learned English, tutored Spanish-speaking students in math and science, and worked as a welder for a railroad company.

He lived in a trailer, sharing a room with five members of his family.

Not long afterward, at age 21, another curveball had a life-changing effect in him. He fell 18 feet into an empty petroleum tank and woke up hours later in the intensive care unit. He told FNL the accident played a big role in the person he is today, because it made him understand the impermanence of things. He learned how to be thankful just to be alive, he said.

Two years later he was finally able to quit his railroad job after receiving a scholarship to University of California Berkeley. There he majored in psychology, but struggled with his writing and speaking assignments and started taking math and science classes, his forte. With this he was able to keep up his GPA and the path was laid for a future in medicine.

Dr. Q, 48, says his grandmother’s healing talents is the driving force ultimately behind his choice to become a doctor. But he also credits his mentor at UC Berkeley’s Hispanic Center of Excellence, director Hugo Mora – he encouraged him to apply to Harvard Medical School, which he did.

“Going to Harvard allowed me to tell a bigger story. I work every day with bright young minds to find a cure for brain cancer,” he told FNL.

“The world needs heroes who’re real people who do the real work,” he added. “I surround myself with bright people and we all stand on the shoulders of giants.”

After graduating cum laude from Harvard, Dr. Quiñones did his internship, residency and some post-doctoral work at the University of California San Francisco.

In 2005 he arrived at Johns Hopkins as a professor and surgeon specializing in brain cancer and pituitary tumors. Today he is the head of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program there, as well as Director of the Pituitary Surgery Program.

Dr. Q said handling the real possibility of his patients’ death is the most challenging part of his work.

“I try to take the negative and turn it into something positive, I tell them that together we’re going to make history,” he said.

“They’re part of something larger than their cancer. Together they’re going to help me find a cure. And it breaks my heart when they pass away.”

As for his story being picked up for the big screen, he said he wants it to be more about his patients than about him and what he does.

“I’ve learned to trust Brad Pitt because they said they wanted to tell a story to make history. It’s humbling. I grew up watching Disney, it’s like a dream,” he said.

Even though he scaled the U.S.–Mexico border fence to become one the most renowned neurosurgeons and neuroscientists in America, Dr. Q. doesn’t like when his accomplishments are equated to success.

“How do you measure success? If you define success as being a brain surgeon or a distinguished philosopher, that’s one thing, but if you define success by happiness, then maybe many more people are successful,” he said.

“I define my success by my happiness,” he said.

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.