An Illegal Immigrant Turned Harvard Med Graduate Brain Surgeon

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Alfredo Quiñones jumped the fence in ’87. Now he saves American lives as a brain surgeon. He began work at age 5 at his father’s gas station. “He kept telling me, ‘You want to be like me? Just never go to school.’ ” At age 14, Quiñones qualified for a program that prepared students for jobs as teachers. He rose at 4:30 to take a bus to the school. There was no bus home so he walked in the blistering heat. He graduated near the top of his class. Shortly after, he decided to leave Mexico. Quiñones went to work in the fields. “I picked tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, corn, grapes.” After a year, he had saved $8,000 — almost all of his pay. “I ate what I was picking,” he says. “I wore the same pair of jeans the whole year.” He moved to Stockton and took a job in a rail yard so he could attend night school. His first job, shoveling sulfur, was the worst of his life. Within a year, he’d become foreman. Then Quiñones switched to night shift and began studies in science and math. After getting an associate’s degree in 1991, Quiñones was accepted to UC Berkeley where he wrote his honors thesis on the role of drug receptors in the brain and teaching calculus on the side. Quiñones says he understands why people might resent him for entering the country illegally. His only excuse is that he was a brash and desperate teenager. “The last thing I was thinking was that I was going to break the law,” he says. Once he arrived, Quiñones says, the US “opened its doors to me” — a welcome that would be unlikely today given the heated immigration debate. He offers no solution but suggests it will not come from higher walls. “As long as there is poverty in our neighboring countries, there will continue to be this influx.” He specializes in a high-tech form of brain surgery called motor mapping, in which an electrical stimulator is used to locate sensitive areas. “Let’s have complete silence, please,” he says, and the room falls quiet. He touches the stimulator to the brain surface, and the woman’s arm twitches — a spot to avoid. Eventually he determines a safe path to the tumor, which he painstakingly removes, piece by piece, with an electrical forceps that cauterizes as it dissects. “I think my background allows me to interact with my patients in a more humanistic way,” he says. “When they’re scared, I’m one of them. I’m just lucky that patients allow me to touch their brains, their lives. When I go in, I see these incredible blood vessels. And it always brings me back to the time I used to pick those huge, beautiful tomatoes with my own hands. Now I am here, looking at the same color — that bright red that just fills the brain with nutrition and wonder. I’m right there in the field, and I’m just doing it.” (Readers Digest)

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