Migrant worker to renowned neurosurgeon: Dr. Q brings his remarkable story to Rochester
This week's second annual TEDxZumbroRiver featured 10 thought-provoking speakers, all of whom shared stories and ideas that inspired and challenged the room of nearly 1,000 attendees.
But after the program concluded, it was clear there was one real rock star in the room. That person was Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojos, an internationally-recognized neuroscientist and neurosurgeon, and the current Chair of Neurological Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Dozens of admirers stood in line for the chance to meet Dr. Quiñones, known simply as "Dr. Q," and get a signed copy of his autobiography, Becoming Dr Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.
One of those individuals was Charlie Lonergan, a Rochester resident who was diagnosed with brain cancer one year ago. As it turned out, Lonergan had been on Capitol Hill the previous week advocating for precisely the research Dr. Q has devoted his career to.
"For me, it felt complete — really full circle to speak to one of the people who is leading the way in the treatment of brain cancer," said Lonergan, who has been undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "Just being able to share that moment with him, knowing there is action being taken to cure this disease ... he's someone who provides hope for me."
For Dr. Q, hope is what his work is all about. Not only is he a leading neurosurgeon, whose work focuses on the treatment of brain tumors, he is also an innovative researcher on the front lines in the effort to find a cure for brain cancer.
Born in Mexico, Dr. Q jumped the fence — literally — into the United Stated when was 19. He did not have any money nor did he know how to speak English. But what he did have was perseverance and a dream for a better life. He worked several years as a cotton picker, painter and welder before earning a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. He later went on to study at Harvard Medical School and in 2005 was hired as a neurosurgeon at John Hopkins Hospital. He joined Mayo Clinic last year.
"When I first came to the States, I wanted to buy a pair of Ray-Bans and a pair of Nike shoes," Dr. Q said in our interview. "I bought those and realized, what else is there? You have to go beyond that. So I give my patients hope. I used to think that I was in the business of finding a cure for brain cancer, and doing amazing surgical techniques, and over the last three years I have realized I am actually in the business of giving my patients hope."
Despite his accomplishments, Dr. Q has a warm and gentle presence, offering a sense of humility that his work is far from complete. Woven into his philosophy is the notion that while not every patient can be healed, every patient can contribute to a better understanding of the brain — providing promise for future generations.
"This is the reason why I started to do research, and collecting the tissue from my patients in the operating room," said Dr. Q. "Because I felt it was my way to immortalize them — to give them a sense of what they give, and what happened in their life, changed the world."
He added, "In the end, we all long for being part of something much bigger than what we are. The reason I do what I do is because I want to change the world. I want to make this world a better place for my children."
Dr. Q's remarkable story will soon reach an even larger audience. It was announced last year that Disney and Brad Pitt's Plan B production company are developing a biopic based on his life. The movie is being produced by the same team responsible for the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years A Slave.
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Cover photo by William Forsman