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Becoming Dr. Q

Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon

With Mim Eichler Rivas
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Dr. Q
    Book Description:

    Today he is known as Dr. Q, an internationally renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who leads cutting-edge research to cure brain cancer. But not too long ago, he was Freddy, a nineteen-year-old undocumented migrant worker toiling in the tomato fields of central California. In this gripping memoir, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa tells his amazing life story-from his impoverished childhood in the tiny village of Palaco, Mexico, to his harrowing border crossing and his transformation from illegal immigrant to American citizen and gifted student at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard Medical School. Packed with adventure and adversity-including a few terrifying brushes with death-Becoming Dr. Qis a testament to persistence, hard work, the power of hope and imagination, and the pursuit of excellence. It's also a story about the importance of family, of mentors, and of giving people a chance.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94960-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-6)

    “Is this the neurosurgeon on call?”

    The urgent words set my heart racing as I picked up the line from the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room at the beginning of a night shift in June 1999.

    “Yes, this is Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa,” I replied formally. Then I quickly amended my answer, offering the nickname given to me in medical school. “This is Dr. Q. How can I help?”

    “An ambulance will be arriving any second, bringing in a patient with a gunshot wound to the head who needs immediate attention!”

    “On my way!” Springing into motion, I sped down the...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 7-12)

      A bright white light, circular in shape, looms high above me at the top of what appears to be a tall, dark tunnel. My mind races, trying to backtrack and remember how I came to be lying at the bottom of this railway tanker, gasping for want of oxygen, fighting to stay conscious, staring at the light high above me.

      Facts present themselves first. I know that I’m twenty-one years old, the firstborn son of Sostenes and Flavia Quiñones. I know that ten minutes earlier—on an otherwise typical Friday morning at the remote industrial site where I am employed...

    • ONE Starry Nights
      (pp. 13-34)

      During the many minutes when I lay at the bottom of the tank without oxygen, struggling on the battlefield between life and death, there was something about the image of being on my back, enclosed in darkness and staring up at the light, that connected me powerfully to my childhood years. Indeed, whenever I travel back along memory’s narrow pathways that lead to the furthest past, the familiar, starry night sky is the first image that rises to welcome me home.

      There in the outskirts of the tiny village of Palaco where I was raised, in the northern part of...

    • TWO Faraway
      (pp. 35-58)

      Misfortune seeped into my family’s existence very slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. Then, toward the end of 1977, when I was nine years old and in the fifth grade, tough times seemed to descend on our household all at once, like a drastic shift in the weather. Even through the foggy lens of memory, I can recall the moment when I understood that we had left behind the simpler, more secure days and were treading upon shaky ground.

      The moment of realization arrived when I found my father behind our house, alone, crying desperately. Something was very wrong. My first...

    • THREE The Kaliman Maneuver
      (pp. 59-68)

      How did I do it?

      Even today, I’m not sure how I managed to jump the fence to start a new life in California. Throughout the years since then, I have often said that I was propelled by a combination of audacity and naivety. Why else would I defy gravity and risk injury, incarceration, and even death to cross the border? Without a certain degree of ignorance about all the things that could go wrong, it would have been much harder to screen out disabling thoughts. If I had been more realistic and had considered the pitfalls in greater depth,...

    • FOUR Lessons from the Fields
      (pp. 69-94)

      Winter is often the most grueling season for the year-round migrant worker.

      I learned this hard truth a short time after my return to the San Joaquin Valley, along with a series of other eye-opening discoveries about the new path that I had chosen. Besides the cold, wet weather that greeted me upon my arrival, I was confronted by the fact that the year-round work cycle was very different from the short stints I’d worked at the ranch before. Seasonal workers move from farm to farm and crop to crop, depending on the growing season, so any preconceived ideas I...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 95-100)

      Another light at the end of the tunnel comes into focus — this time as I hurry toward a staff examination room. A yellow fluorescent light, it spills out of the open doorway into one of the long dark corridors of San Francisco General Hospital. Suddenly, hospital personnel, dressed in green scrubs, appear in the pool of dim yellow light at the end of the hall, waiting for me with somber expressions.

      Out of habit, I wonder who the patient is and what dire diagnosis is cause for concern. Then I remember: I’m the patient.

      Quickly reviewing the events of the...

    • FIVE Courting Destiny
      (pp. 101-114)

      During the uncertain days that followed the AIDS needle stick in 1999, I thought a lot about earlier times in my life when I had managed to overcome crises and challenges. Ten years before, in 1989, after I’d survived falling in the tank and had made up my mind to go out in search of a new path, I found myself having to hop another series of fences every bit as formidable as the one at the border. Again, a combination of audacity and naivety had propelled me forward. So had everything I’d learned during my two memorable years at...

    • SIX Green Eyes
      (pp. 115-137)

      Unlike many who heed the call to go into the field of medicine—usually with aspirations they’ve nurtured from childhood though premed college classes—I came to the dream later, as one rediscovering a long-lost love. The fantasy of being a doctor had hovered in the distance during my youth, like other “Faraway” dreams. But at some point, the dream had seemed beyond my grasp and I let it go. Or so I thought.

      When I arrived at Berkeley, I had the freedom to explore many avenues before committing to one pursuit. Increasingly curious about the field of law, I...

    • SEVEN From Harvest to Harvard
      (pp. 138-164)

      My first few months of medical school taught me the importance of approaching the study of medicine as both a sprinter and a marathon runner. With a course load that included anatomy, physiology, immunology, and pharmacology, my time was divided between attending classes, keeping up with assignments and exams, as well as going to the laboratory daily to do research. Whether I was studying on weekends or during many all-nighters, or reading on my feet in the lab in between experiments, I was so caught up by these demands that the reality of where I was didn’t fully hit me...

    • EIGHT In the Land of Giants
      (pp. 165-190)

      Toward the end of my fourth year of medical school, after wrapping up my research fellowship year, I met a patient whose story changed mine.

      A fifty-two-year-old man who had been at the peak of his career, with a loving, devoted family, this patient came to Harvard afflicted by a disease that had eluded diagnosis by many brilliant physicians. After being in excellent general health, he had suffered the sudden onset of back pain and weakness in his right leg that was causing him difficulty walking. As the senior medical student on the team—a step down from the resident,...

    • NINE Question the Rules and When Possible Make Your Own
      (pp. 191-206)

      What is a miracle?

      In medicine, we see healing as a kind of miracle, but is it the only kind? I certainly felt that I’d experienced a miracle when I received a clean bill of health after the year-long AIDS scare, and I felt even more blessed a short time later when Anna told me that we had conceived our second child. My thirty-third birthday in 2001—with me alive and thriving and my family healthy and growing—was as miraculous a celebration as I could hope for.

      Around me I saw everyday miracles, similar to mine, whenever a dreaded...

    • TEN Brainstorm
      (pp. 207-230)

      “We’ve got officers down! Officers down!” The words crackled through the static on the emergency room’s police radio late on Wednesday, June 12, 2002.

      At one time I might have felt like I was caught up in an action movie or a TV drama. But, in fact, these dramatic words were real and marked the beginning of my fourth year at UCSF, now as a chief resident at the Trauma Center. Long gone was the night when I nearly passed out at the sight of a trauma victim with a light shining through the hole in his head. By now...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 231-234)

      First there is darkness. Then a beam from a bright white light illuminates the overcast night. No, it’s a pair of headlights—shining as if in a tunnel—that momentarily blind me as they approach.

      Shielding my eyes from the glare, I stand at the curb outside Boston’s Logan airport, where I’ve just stepped out into the freezing New England winter after a red-eye flight from San Francisco. Within seconds, I realize that this ominous image—which has become linked in my mind to terrible accidents—is merely the approaching headlights from the town car that’s been sent to drive...

    • ELEVEN Hopkins
      (pp. 235-251)

      “Dr. Q, you’re the attending neurosurgeon on call for this weekend, correct?” said the voice on the phone late on Friday, July 29, 2005.

      Six years earlier, I had felt great trepidation hearing similar words on my first night on call as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital. Back then, the mere thought of examining a patient with a gunshot wound to the head had almost made me consider turning back as I walked down the stairs to the ER.

      But this time, the question, asked by a staff member in the emergency room at the Johns Hopkins Hospital,...

    • TWELVE Gray Matter
      (pp. 252-268)

      I had a simple vision for my dream practice, based on my experience of reaching terra firma at the hospital where I woke up after being rescued from the tank. I wanted to create for my patients the same feeling of security that I had experienced. Because of the genuine concern and warmth of the doctor in the white coat, I had known that everything was going to be all right. Though he was obviously a stranger, there was a familiarity about him. Given his dark coloring and prominent nose and features, I assumed he was from an immigrant or...

    • THIRTEEN Seeing the Light
      (pp. 269-288)

      “There’s a Professor Schmidek on the line for you,” the Hopkins hospital operator announced as I picked up the phone in my office one Sunday evening after finishing rounds.

      “Did you say Schmidek, as in Dr. Henry Schmidek?” I asked, fairly certain that I didn’t know anyone by that name—other thantheProfessor Schmidek whom I had met at Dartmouth a year earlier. A legendary figure of science and medicine, he was also the editor ofSchmidek and Sweet’s Operative Neurosurgical Techniques— the most widely used text in neurosurgery the world over. “Please, yes, thank you, put him through!”...

    • FOURTEEN Finding the Steel in Your Soul
      (pp. 289-307)

      As 2010 got under way, the week ending January 17 hit with brute force, illustrating my long-standing belief that there are times when we simply can’t fight nature and have to accept our human limitations. But the events of this week also reminded me of the important role that patients can play in their own healing, as well as the powerful contribution they can make to the effort to understand brain cancer. To be sure, we were enjoying a break between the monster blizzards that were bearing down on most parts of the country that January. But if any of...

  7. Epilogue: WHEN THE SUN COMES UP
    (pp. 308-311)

    Sunday mornings are my favorite part of the week—when I can work from home and spend more time with my family. I haven’t found the perfect balance yet, but I’m greatly improving! Whenever I’ve been in the OR late at night and feel that the war is overwhelming, when things look bleak, lo and behold, night draws to an end and it’s another day. Like clockwork, the sun’s coming up and I’m safe and secure at home, ready to jump out of bed and have a new adventure.

    I can recall many such mornings—in Palaco as a child,...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 312-317)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 318-318)