Your Personal Best – Alfredo Quiones-Hinojosa

UPDATED: April 29, 2009
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2009

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa had barely slept. The neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University had been in surgery through the wee hours of the morning and was seeing his three children for the first time in a week. He really could use more rest, but he had a commitment; he was set to speak with a group of high-school students about his journey from a poor childhood in Mexico to one of the most renowned medical facilities in the world. So, he wrangled his brood into the car, and headed back to Johns Hopkins to meet just a dozen students.

Dr. Q—as he’s known to colleagues—says this is the price of success. “I could easily call in and say, ‘Sorry, I won’t be able to make it,’ ” says Quiñones, 51. “But that’s the difference between being responsible and wanting it, and not wanting it. What I want is to make this a better place for all of us to live.… The sacrifice that I make is I push my body to the limit, I push my brain to the limit.”

Quiñones learned the value of hard work early, working at the age of 5 at his father’s small gas station outside the border town of Mexicali. “[Child labor] is unheard of in the United States, but it was part of what we did,” he says. “I don’t regret any of that. That made me who I am today.”

Unlike his father who only made it to second grade and his mother who reached sixth grade before quitting school, Quiñones realized education provided the path to a better life. He remembers waking daily at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus to school, and he had to hitchhike or walk home in the afternoon. His persistence paid off, and he graduated high school near the top of his class.

In spite of his best efforts, the devaluation of the peso in 1976 nearly crippled his lower-middle-class family. As the oldest of five children, he took odd jobs to help put food on the table. “Hope was not part of the dialect that we had,” he says.

Desperate to do better for himself and his family, Quiñones decided on his 19th birthday to cross the border. “All I wanted to do was make a little bit of money to put food on the table, and I was planning to go back to my country,” he says. “People come to the United States because they want to fulfill their dream.… All I wanted was a place to work, and I found much more than that.”

Quiñones found work picking produce in central California. He constantly looked for opportunities, scrimping on food and clothes to save most of his pay, carrying an English dictionary he studied daily, learning skills like driving a tractor and servicing engines that qualified him for a temporary work permit.

After a year, he had enough of farm work and got a rail yard job loading sulphur and fish lard, which paid enough for him to attend college at night. In the meantime, he received his resident visa or “green card” in 1989. Quiñones studied English, science and math at San Joaquin Delta College (where he met his future wife, Anna), tutoring other students along the way to earn extra money.

Quiñones graduated with his associate degree in 1991 and was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. Then, inspired by his mentor, Hugo Mora, an administrator who ran the Hispanic Center of Excellence, and by the memory of his grandmother as a town healer, Quiñones decided to become a doctor, applied to Harvard Medical School—and was accepted.

Although many people he meets are amazed to hear about this rapid ascension, Quiñones holds that there’s no secret to his success. “I think we all can do it. The question is, who is willing to sacrifi ce? And by that, I mean: Who is willing to sacrifice nights without sleep? Who is willing to sacrifice days without eating? Who is willing to sacrifice times without seeing your family—months or years? And that’s really what it comes down to.”

He describes his drive to succeed this way:
When you go into a room that is absolutely dark and they close the door behind you, the challenge is to find the switch and turn the light on. Some have an innate ability to remain calm and find the switch. They put one foot in front of another. I knew I could do it if I worked hard and put passion in what I did. I kept all my senses in a hyperacute state until I found that switch, which was becoming a brain surgeon. I have always remained open to opportunities and open to challenges. You have to focus on the reward that comes after the difficulty—keep your eyes on the prize.

One of the most challenging phases of his journey was his residency at the University of California, San Francisco. “The most difficult thing is to realize that no matter what you do, no matter how much effort you put in to save a human life, at the end of the day, you cannot defeat nature,” he says. “I realized that no matter what I did, life would escape me sometimes.”

He was working more than 120 hours a week and was home so little that his children called the hospital “Daddy’s house.” The emotional, psychological and physical demands almost overwhelmed him. “But I overcame it,” he says. “I turned all the negative energy into positive energy. It’s all a learning process.”

Today, as an associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology, Quiñones is the director of the brain tumor program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus. Despite his standing and achievements, though, he still encounters patients who hear his accent and question his qualifications. And, although he became a citizen in 1997, Quiñones meets those who resent the fact that he entered the country illegally. But such prejudice doesn’t faze him. It fuels him: “I try to work harder; I try to make contributions to our society. Only time will tell the truth. I can’t make people change their mind. I just go down to the basic principles of hard work and try to be a good human being.”

To ensure that his children also understand the value of hard work, Quiñones involves them in events, such as his talk with the students, and his kids have their share of chores around the house. Quiñones thinks he’s getting through: Recently, his son saved $13 and donated it to brain cancer research.

Ultimately, the goal of Quiñones’ years of work and sacrifice is not personal gratification. Everything he does is a way of giving back to the country that gave him the chance to be something more, he says.

“I have to believe that what I do as an academician, as a brain scientist, as a cancer researcher is someday going to touch millions of lives. I have to believe that what I do as a father will have an effect on our society, because I recognize that my most important contribution… is what I do as a father for my children and what I do as a mentor for my students who I meet every day. That, I have to believe, is really going to change the world.”

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.