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The man in charge of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at Johns Hopkins University is known as Dr. Q, and the lab he runs, one where 23 researchers from around the globe are hoping to find a cure for brain cancer, is known as Dr. Q’s Lab.
Both the man and the lab have more elaborate names. His is Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa; his title is Director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital, which is part of Johns Hopkins University, where he works in a lab officially called the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory.
“Every day I meet a new patient whose biggest battle is the one they are facing in the moment,” the associate professor of neurosurgery, oncology, cellular and molecular medicine, and neuroscience, said in a recent phone interview.
“I want to find a cure,” said the man whose life in the United States began as an undocumented immigrant working in the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Quiñones-Hinojosa, grew up in the Mexican state of Baja California, not from the U.S. border town of Calexico. There he was raised in two small villages one about 30 miles south of the Mexican border town of Mexicali and the other 60 miles south.
At the age of 19, Quiñones-Hinojosa, jumped the fence to get to the other side of the border at Calexico, California.
That was in 1987, and for the next four to five years he held down various low-wage jobs, including farm work, welding, painting and driving. In that four-year time frame, he enrolled in English classes at a local community college and ended up with an associate’s degree.
The associate’s degree led to a bachelor’s degree from the University of California Berkeley, followed by a medical degree from Harvard University, where he graduated cum laude. Within 10 years of hopping the fence, he had become a U.S. citizen and was on his way to UC San Francisco to do his residency.
Quiñones-Hinojosa provides a detailed account of his journey in his book “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon,” which came out earlier this month. In it he describes several pivotal moments that made him who he is today. One was his decision to learn English; another was a near death experience in a railway tanker filled with toxic fumes; and a third was an impromptu invitation by a Harvard neurosurgeon to observe an awake craniotomy.
In April 1989, Quiñones-Hinojosa had been in the United States for a little more than two years and was working at California Railcar Repair when he descended into a tanker to retrieve a metal nut. The tanker was empty but had recently been filled with liquefied petroleum gas. The fumes were still toxic, and Quiñones-Hinojosa ended up in a defenseless heap at the bottom.
After two failed attempts, coworkers managed to get him out and he recovered fully, but doctors said that had he stayed in the car for two more minutes, he would have died.
“[I]n the moments when I had battled for my life,” he writes in the book, “the adrenaline needed for survival had risen to a permanently higher level, intensifying my focus and helping me turn negative energy into more positive results.
“Mysterious, I know,” he writes, “but it’s a phenomenon I would observe time and again in patients and others who must fight against their own mortality.”
Throughout the book, Quiñones-Hinojosa gives credit to a long list of people who in one way or another have supported him and his work. That list includes everyone from his grandmother, who was a midwife and healer, or curandera, to Peter Black, a Harvard professor and chief of neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Passing Quiñones-Hinojosa in the hallway one day, Black asked him if he wanted to see an awake craniotomy, to which Dr. Q promptly said yes.
That’s when “I fell in love with the brain,” he said, “when I went in and I saw this brain surgeon touching this organ dancing with incredible, beautiful rhythm and touching it with cusps. I was mesmerized. I fell in love.
“The brain,” he said, “is the ultimate organ. Once you open it up there is no difference whether you are black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, or Christian. We are all the same.”
What his various mentors had in common, Quiñones-Hinojosa said, is that they pushed him to excel. “I have never been afraid of being challenged and a lot of the people who are successful have this in common. They are not afraid of making mistakes.”
What they are afraid of, he said, is “not learning.” And what he fears, he said, is “being stagnant.”
Lucy Hood is a Freelance Journalist based in North Carolina. She can be reached on Twitter @LucyAHood.