A different education
Quinones-Hinojosa spent two years at San Joaquin Delta College, taking classes during the day and continuing work for California Railcar Repair in the afternoon. He never knew the difference between "community college" and "university," but an American friend and his family helped him understand, and encouraged him to apply to larger, more prestigious institutions to further his education.
To his surprise, Quinones-Hinojosa got offers from several universities, he recalls. He chose University of California, Berkeley, because of the scholarship the school offered, but also because he learned it was the epicenter of a social movement in the 1960s. He enrolled at age 23.
But the environment wasn't entirely supportive. A teaching assistant once told him, "You can't be from Mexico. You're too smart to be from Mexico." He said nothing, but the comment stung. These words would later spur him on to prove people like this wrong.
Next stop: Harvard Medical School. When he matriculated, the U.S. population was about 18% minority, but faculty at medical schools was only about 3.7% minorities, Quinones-Hinojosa wrote in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. While a student, he earned his U.S. citizenship in 1997.
One of his medical school classmates told him no one could pronounce "Alfredo Quinones," and suggested he change his name to Alfred Quinn. Instead, he lengthened his name to Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, honoring his mother's family. It was also in medical school that developed the nickname Dr. Q., which is what his patients still call him today.
The brain clearly showed itself as Quinones-Hinojosa's destiny one Friday night in medical school when the hospital was near-empty. A prominent brain surgeon stopped him and asked if he wanted to see brain surgery.
"He goes, 'Let's go right now,' " Quinones-Hinojosa says. "He puts scrubs on me and I walk into the OR to see this magnificent patient that was awake and was being mapped for brain surgery."
Today, Quinones-Hinojosa specializes in the same surgery.
"Alfredo is an outstanding surgeon, and takes very humane and very skilled care of patients with brain tumors," says Dr. Henry Brem, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "His mission is to not only deliver the best possible care, but also to do cutting edge research in order to better understand the diseases and to ultimately find better therapies for those diseases."
Despite Quinones-Hinojosa's prominent career, longtime friend Edward Kravitz, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, describes him as down-to-Earth: "He's easy to talk to to. He puts his hand out to shake your hand, and it's this wonderful warm grip. He's super friendly. Nothing at all pompous about him."
Operating on the brain
As a migrant farmer, Quinones-Hinojosa's work was full of hazards. With the machinery he operated, a wrong move could mean his finger or hand might be gone; he could even have lost his life. One machine he sat on, for picking tomatoes, he called "the astronaut chair." He had to manage it with both hands and arms.
These days, at Johns Hopkins, he has a different "astronaut chair" -- where he sits in the operating room, using his hands, feet and mouth to control instruments and a microscope.
"All that practice began when I was working in the fields," he says.
Quinones operates on about 250 brain tumors every year. He uses his operating room as an extension of his laboratory. He wants to learn the motor pathways of the brain, what makes the cells "move like spiders" and how to attack them.
He's working on a method to use human fat cells to fight brain cancer. From the fat, researchers derive mesenchymal stem cells, which appear to be effective in identifying cancer.
"It's almost like you give a hunting dog something to smell," Quinones said. "We give the cells the smell of cancer juice and they go back and chase these cancers incredibly well."
You can tell how much Quinones-Hinojosa loves what he's doing now by the way he talks about the brain.
Brain cancer, he says, is "the most devastating disease that affects the most beautiful organ in our body: the brain. I'm biased because I'm a brain surgeon, I study the brain, but I am not biased -- It is the most beautiful organ in our body."
Mary Lamb, 56, of Annapolis, Maryland, learned she had large brain tumor -- a non-cancerous meningioma -- in 2008. Nervous about her first appointment with Quinones-Hinojosa, she found him to be "a ball of energy," who was confident that she would be OK.
"He's just so kind and so friendly and he feels like he's somebody that you've known all your life," she said.
The morning of the surgery, Quinones-Hinojosa eased Lamb's fears. "He told me, 'No matter what happens in the rest of the world, I will not leave you, you are my concern,' " she remembers.
Lamb's tumor has not returned, and she organizes fund-raisers for Quinones-Hinojosa's research. The events have raised more than $40,000 in the three years.
"I guess that's the thing that makes him so kind and so compassionate, is where he came from," she said.