Every issue of Spilt Arts will feature an adult who has overcome significant socioeconomic struggles to become a hero in his or her community. Our staff is proud to present our first hero, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, who has gone from migrant farm worker to leading neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
When many people think of a neurosurgeon or neuroscientist, they probably don’t imagine an illegal immigrant or a migrant farm worker. But that’s what I am. I am who I am today because of who I was yesterday.
I was born in Mexicali, Mexico as the oldest of six children. I started working at five years old and earned my teaching license at age eighteen. I always had a hunger to strive and do more so in 1987, I jumped the border with my parents, four of my siblings, and my brother-in-law. The first attempt was unsuccessful but later that day, I tried again and made it onto American soil.
There aren’t many choices for a nineteen year old undocumented young man with virtually no knowledge of the English language. I spent two years in Fresno, California working as a cotton picker, painter, and welder in addition to many other odd jobs. When I was twenty one, I was involved in a terrible accident and almost died. That was the wake-up call I needed to change my life.
I started going to school, working on acquiring English skills, and was accepted to UC Berkeley, where I majored in Psychology. I had received a scholarship which afforded me the opportunity to learn, but I still struggled with speaking and writing in English. Although my family supported me in my goals, I felt a constant pressure to change-my environment, my station in life, everything. I’d made it to a great college but I was still unsure of what the future held.
During my fourth year, I realized I wanted to pursue medicine. My grandmother was a healer and despite pondering other career options like law, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. The memories of my brush with death solidified my desire to help others who couldn’t help themselves and I knew the path I chose would be a difficult one.
Since I started living in America, I have faced many different types of challenges. When I felt discouraged growing up, I would close my eyes and imagine myself as a doctor. Even today, when I have a particularly hard day, I rest my eyes and think of how far I’ve come and imagine a positive outcome. I knew that society didn’t believe in me so I had to believe in myself, especially when life was challenging, which was most of the time. This faith in the future motivated me to work hard and eventually, I was accepted to Harvard Medical School.
It was at Harvard that I became a U.S. citizen and my dreams became my reality. I had kept my dreams simple but they had many hidden layers and complexities due to my past experiences. Throughout this journey, my family has been the most important aspect of my life, especially my wife and children. I tell my kids to never stop dreaming but you also need hard work to make your hopes come true. It’s also very important for adults to keep wishing and hoping so we can encourage our children together, by serving as an example for them. It is not how hard we are hit in life but it is about those moments when we are afraid and when life is hitting us hard and getting us down on our knees, that we respond with courage to get up and try again.
Dr. Q is a world renowned neurosurgeon who practices at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He was featured in the ABC docuseries, Hopkins. You can read more about his work in eradicating brain cancer at: http://www.doctorqmd.com/