The doctor is in, after a long and arduous journey

Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa began his race to success by hurdling a border fence

Sun Profile

October 29, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

As he lathers up before surgery at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa mentally prepares himself to repair a living human brain.

This one belongs to Robert Hawkins, a 28-year-old surfer from Vero Beach, Fla., who lies on an operating table with a tumor the size of an orange inside his head.

The growth makes it difficult for Hawkins to control his left arm and left leg. But removing it takes hours and carries its own risks - a wrong move by the surgeon can ruin the cranial nerves that control Hawkins' movements, memory and ability to speak.

"It is stressful - I'm not going to lie to you. My heart is pounding right now," Quinones says.

It's a challenge the 38-year-old neurosurgeon has spent half his life preparing for. But brain surgery was the furthest thing from Quinones' mind in 1987, when he hopped a fence on the border between Mexico and California, joining an endless stream of impoverished illegal immigrants to the United States.

In a country where rags-to-riches stories are commonplace, Quinones' rise from the fields to the operating room, from illegal immigrant to citizen, is an unusually compelling tale of perseverance and talent.

Living in a run-down trailer in those early days, toiling in the fields as a migrant worker, a stranger in a land whose language he couldn't speak, Quinones said he often wondered why he had left family, friends and a job in Mexico.

"There were times I would sit in that trailer and say to myself, `What am I doing here?'" he recalled.

"There are a lot of Mexicans who come in illegally and end up succeeding, owning their own businesses or something along those lines," said Ben Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a research and education organization in Washington. "But I have to say, this is the first I've ever heard of anyone becoming a brain surgeon."

Quinones does not see his experience as an example for either side in the contentious battle between those who want to tighten U.S. borders and those who want to give illegal immigrants a path to legal residency. He has no pat solution, he says, for the nation's immigration problems.

Born and raised outside Mexicali in the Mexican state of Baja California, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa was the eldest of five children, and he started working as a boy at his father's dusty, one-pump gas station.

One of his clearest recollections comes from his 11th year, when his father - beset by financial problems - lost his gas station and cried in front of his son. "I remember what it was like to live through that, and I was never going to go back to that again," Quinones said.

He also recalls, more vaguely, the funeral of a baby sister who died from persistent diarrhea when Quinones was 3 - a period when the whole family was living in a couple of rooms behind the station. "I remember all my relatives were crowded into this one room, and there was a tremendous sadness," he said.

For the most part, though, friends and relatives remember Quinones as an optimistic young man who radiated confidence and warmth. "Ever since we were in elementary school, he was always one of the most popular kids around. It's the way he carries himself with other people," says his brother, Gabriel Quinones-Hinojosa, 37, who sells and repairs cell phones in San Diego.

Alfredo attended local schools and earned a certificate in 1986 from the Escuela Normal Urbana Federal Fronteriza in Mexicali, a four-year school for prospective teachers where he enrolled at age 14. He taught for a year, but the genteel poverty of a teaching career didn't appeal to him.

"If you become a teacher in Mexico and you don't have any political connections, they'll put you in a school out in the country somewhere that's nowhere near your home, and you'll stay there. That's what Alfredo faced," his brother said.

Said Alfredo: "In countries like Mexico, there's still such a bifurcation of classes, you have to be wealthy to begin with to move up at all."

So one day he hopped a chain-link fence not far from his home, made his way to Fresno and started picking fruit and vegetables in California's hot, fertile Central Valley.

"I came with the idea of making a lot of money and going back, but I abandoned that idea after I saw the opportunities here for being able to achieve what you set out to achieve - and helping people at the same time," he said.

Nor was the United States entirely foreign. The Quinones children had visited the U.S. with their parents on trips to buy supplies for a small store they operated. They also visited relatives who had settled in California during the 1960s and 1970s.

Still, for a 19-year-old illegal immigrant, that first full year in the U.S. was a lonely one. At one point, a friend from Mexico told Quinones he'd never be anything but a fruit-picker.

"I refused to believe that was going to be my future," he said, "but it made me realize how powerful a self-fulfilling prophecy can be."

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