Dr. Qs eyes widen and the hands that once picked grapes and now perform surgeries spring into action. He explains in laymans terms how he and a plastic surgeon teamed up to perform anterior brain tumor removals through an incision on the eyelid.
The way traditional surgery has been done is to remove the scalp forward, and then you do the removal of the bone, and then you take the tumor out, Dr. Alfredo Quiones-Hinojosa explained during a chat Thursday at a hotel in downtown Rochester, Minn.
Now, he explained, the plastic surgeon teammate makes the same incision used for movie stars when their eyelids get droopy. And tumors as large as three centimeters have been excised through this eyebrow-raising technique.
The method reduces, if not eliminates, cranial trauma and retraction of the brain. He has done 60 to 70 such operations in the past five years.
Supremely impressive. The same could be said of Quiones-Hinojosa, who now serves as chair of Neurologic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic complex in Jacksonville, Fla. Colleagues tagged him with that catchy Dr. Q monikeryears ago.
On New Years Day 1987, Quiones-Hinojosa, in pursuit of a dream he felt he could not realize in his native Mexico, scaled an 18-foot barbed wire fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.He was 19.
He began work picking grapes, cotton, cantaloupe, tomatoes and other crops. Twelve years later, he graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School.
Hard work, resiliency, perseverance, never giving up on your dreams are the same principles then that keep me going today as a brain surgeon, scientist, professor, philanthropist and entrepreneur, he said.
As a migrant worker, I worked with my hands and brains, he added. The difference is that the stakes are much higher, because back then I only had my life in my hands. I now have the lives of patients in my hands
The oldest of six children, the 49-year old father of three grew up dirt poor in a small village outside Mexicali in Baja California. The family plunged into further poverty after his father lost his gas station.
Alfredo went to school barefoot at times.
Wanting to help his family, Quiones-Hinojosa was barely 15 when he went to work for an uncle at a migrant farm in Mendota, Calif. He spent the summer months weeding fields and picking cotton and produce. He would return home to Mexico with $1,000, most of which he gave to his parents to make ends meet.
He obtained a teaching license when he was 19 years old. But he had a dream of becoming a doctor a goal inspired by his maternal grandmother, a curandera, Spanish for village healer. He realized America gave him the better shot to achieve it.
Border agents had confiscated his Mexican passport at a checkpoint after learning that he had illegally worked in the U.S. with only a tourist visa.
As he described in his memoir, Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon (University of California Press, 2011), Quiones-Hinojosa scaled the fence separating Mexicali from Calexico, Calif. But he was caught by border agents and sent back.
He waited a few hours and climbed over the fence again. A cousin drove him to San Diego, where he bought an airline ticket to Los Angeles with no ID.
It was very different then, he recalled.
Broke and unable to speak a word of English, he slept inside the terminal and ate food travelers had left on tables until another cousin showed up two days later for the ride to the farms in Mendota.
Quiones-Hinojosa worked as a migrant for two years and then landed a job as a welder and cleaner with a railroad company. He nearly lost his life at age 21 when he fell 18 feet into a railroad tanker and was overcome by petroleum fumes. He was pulled up barely conscious and taken to a nearby hospital.
He juggled work and studies at a community college while homeless and living in a small camper trailer with a leaky roof. There were days he woke up drenched.
We are equipping (stem cells body fat), training them, arming them with special tools so we can put them back in humans and fight all kinds of cancer.
At the urging of a friend, Quiones-Hinojosa applied to the University of California at Berkeley. He was accepted. With the help of a scholarship, hemajored in psychology and took several calculus, physics and chemistry classes to boost his grade-point average.
He wrote an honors thesis on neuroscience and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. He married and became a U.S. citizen during his time there. He graduated with honors in 1999 and was the class valedictorian.
He had long resisted the naysayers, the ones who would say Youre not Mexican. You are too smart, or even friends who told him that schools like Harvard were only for the elite, not for Mexican migrant and manual laborers like him. His dream would not let him quit.
Following a residency in San Francisco, Quiones-Hinojosa joined the staff at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 2005 as a professor of neurological surgery and oncology. He has served as director of both the brain tumor surgery and pituitary surgery programs at the medical center. And he has authored several textbooks on stem-cell biology and neurosurgical techniques.
Quiones-Hinojosa joined the Mayo team eight months ago, where he teaches and also heads a team of scientists working on a potentially promising way fight to fight cancer: stem cells extracted from a persons fat.
We are equipping them, training them, arming them with special tools so we can put them back in humans and fight all kinds of cancer, said Quiones-Hinojosa, who came to Minnesota this past week to make a presentation on the research.
Lab results, in which human cancer cells have been injected into animals and then treated with the fat cells, have been unbelievably positive. We have cured cancer in animals, he said.
He believes it will take another two or three years before the procedure may be done on a human patient at the Mayo Clinic.
Quiones-Hinojosa acknowledges that individuals and groups have pressured him to speak out on the immigration debate.
I always tell people that these are complex issues, he said. I am not an expert on immigration. I know about cancer. I know about brain surgery. I know about cell migration. My responsibility is not so much to talk about immigration but to serve as a role model for all those people who have come to this country with a dream to make this world a better place.
A movie production company headed by Brad Pitt is working on a movie based on his life. The script is scheduled to be completed by this summer. Casting will follow.
I ask Quiones-Hinojosa if he would like Brad Pitt to play him.
No, he chuckled. Hes too good-looking.
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