While cooking dinner last night, I heard a fascinating story on public radio about Dr. Alfredo Quinones, an internationally-known neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Dr. Quinones, or Dr. Q, as he is called affectionately by colleagues and patients alike, has just written a book, Becoming Dr. Q, My Journey from Migrant Worker to Brain Surgeon (University of California Press, 2011).
Dr. Quinones was born in a small, dirt-poor village outside of Mexicali in Baja, California in 1968. At age 18, he “jumped the fence,” and managed to run from the border and into a new life in the U.S. He spoke no English at first, and worked in the fields of central California as a migrant worker, then as a welder. He went to community college, learned English, and eventually made his way to Harvard and onto the path of becoming a leader in brain cancer research.
Along with a team of scientists under his direction, he is looking for a way to replace knives and cutting with non-invasive stem cell therapies that could conceivably destroy tumors and repair damaged tissue. “I don’t want my children to have to undergo the same barbaric ways of treating brain tumors as we do,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do. But the brain is a sanctuary, for God’s sake! It wasn’t meant to be violated! What I did today—entering the brain, illegally—it’s against nature. We need to find a better way to treat this disease.”
Dr. Quinones’ story is timely. In a recent Republican debate, Rick Perry accused those who oppose educating the children of illegal immigrants of having "no heart.” This did not win Perry points with his brethren.
When Dr. Quinones was asked what he thought of this debate in light of his own life experience, he hesitated, trying to find words. He said, “Well, as you know, I always tell people, I wish I was a poet or a Nobel laureate in literature and I could express my thoughts and articulate them more eloquently, but the truth is, honestly, I am just a simple brain surgeon and a scientist. I am not an expert on immigration. I only know about my own experience.”
He admits that his story is unusual. Not every illegal immigrant is going to become a neurosurgeon. But, he noted that the world needs not just successful brain surgeons, but successful carpenters, plumbers, and teachers. I think his point was that all people deserve a decent education to reach their highest potential. The world needs people who do lots of different jobs exceptionally well.
In an article in Hopkins Medicine Magazine online, Dr. Quinones said, “you can’t succeed in today’s world without being open, without having feelings….You can literally train a monkey to do what we do. The challenge in what we do is not in the surgery—it’s in the emotional connection you form with the patients.”
I like this man, Dr. Q. If I ever need to have my head opened up, I would want it to be by someone like him; someone who knows not only what he is doing, but also what sacred place he is entering past the bone of my skull and in the soft tissue of my brain. I would want this person, this doctor, to be aware of what he is feeling about himself and about me when he goes in there.
“I wish I was a poet.”
In my opinion, that is a rather amazing thing for a brain surgeon to wish to be. Listen to the full radio broadcast here.
Note: Information and quotes used in this blog-post come from a story by David Dudley in Hopkins Medicine Magazine online (Winter, 2007).
Last but not least, if you have four and a half more minutes, check out a video interview with Dr. Quinones from bigthink, "a forum where top experts explore the big ideas and core skills defining the 21st century." I was having trouble embedding the video here, but if you copy and paste this URL into your browser, you can see and hear Dr. Q talk about growing up and his memories of his grandmother who was a curandera.