From tomato picker to brain surgeon

By Elisabeth Román

The life of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa could easily be produced into a highly rated, rags-to-riches telenovela. Twenty years ago, risking his life and safety, Alfredo climbed over the border fence from Mexico into the United States. The economic and political crisis in Mexico had taken a toll on the Quiñones-Hinojosa’s small business, and the young man left home with dreams of providing for his family. It was a big responsibility for 19-year-old Alfredo and one he embraced with faith in God.

Like so many of Alfredo’s relatives who migrated before him, he began working in the California fields picking tomatoes, cotton and cantaloupes. He lived in an old camper, spoke no English, and at times had no food. But Alfredo had a fire in his gut, he had hope, believed in his own abilities, and his faith never wavered.

Soon after his arrival in this country, Quiñones-Hinojosa realized the importance of becoming immersed in the language and culture of his new home. He walked around with an English dictionary in his pocket, reading it any chance he got; he went to the movies to learn the language and culture, and signed up for English classes at a community college, where a teacher recognized his talent and encouraged him to attend the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley on a scholarship, the young immigrant discovered his passion for science and medicine.

Quiñones-Hinojosa was accepted into Harvard Medical School, where he graduated cum laude and delivered the commencement speech. It was during this time that he became a citizen of the United States. After graduating from Harvard, he went on complete his residency in neurosurgery at the University of California in San Francisco.

Today, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, formerly an undocumented tomato picker, is the Director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus and teaches Neurosurgery and Oncology, Neuroscience, and Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.  His rough callus-ridden hands, evidence of his hard work in the fields, are gone. In their place the smooth, soft hands of a skilled surgeon emerged to save the lives of others.

“Just like any other immigrant, my future was obscure. I had no money or education, but the power to succeed was in me the whole time and I overcame all types of obstacles,” Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa commented. “I closed my eyes and prayed that everything would be alright. If my dream was going to happen, then it would. Now I try to make this world a better place by fighting against cancer. I was put into this role for a reason: to make a difference. I succeeded thanks to my faith, by surrendering to a higher power and working hard every day. ” Through his research Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa is currently working on a breakthrough in the treatment of brain cancer.

His faith was inculcated in him by his mother, a devout Catholic who made him go to church when he would have preferred not to. “But going to church instilled in me a faith in a higher force, so even at my worse times, I kept looking for that light; that hope of getting out of poverty. I believed in God and no matter how hard things were, I was going to make it.”

Dr. Quiñones-Hinajosa considers the greatest is how to harvest the power of our people. How do we develop the future scientists, inventors and doctors? How do we keep our children off the streets? Convinced that the key to overcoming these challenges can be found in education, the brain surgeon says this too has its share of challenges and difficulties. “Young people are not motivated to get a higher education. I have difficulty motivating even those in my own family to get an education and they have seen what it has done for me. This is our greatest challenge as a nation. “

For reflection

How do you strive for your education? Do you give up easily when you encounter obstacles?


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