Jan 10 2012
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In the Business of Giving Hope

Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, MD, is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program. He is director of the brain tumor program at Johns Hopkins’ Bayview campus, and an associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University. Read more about Quinones-Hinojosa here.

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Human Capital Blog: When you came to the United States, you started as a migrant worker and worked your way up to the renowned brain surgeon you are today. Why did you choose brain surgery?

Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa: A lot of times, especially when I first came to Johns Hopkins, patients sensed that I had an accent and I didn’t fit the stereotype of a brain surgeon. Sometimes comments came out of their mouths that would really upset my staff. But at the end of the day we’re all the same. No matter how different we are from one another, our brains are all the same. The same beautiful color, same shape and size. I can’t tell the difference between brains of different races, religions or classes.

Brain cancer is dangerous and devastating. I believe it’s a horrendous disease that affects the most beautiful organ of our body. That’s why I dedicated my life to try to find a cure. I don’t know if I’m going to find a cure but I‘m going to give it my best. I want to give my patients hope by knowing there’s someone like me who has made his life purpose to try to find a cure.

HCB: You recently published a book titled “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.” What inspired you to write the book?

Quinones-Hinojosa: A lot of people have written about me – journals, magazines, newspapers – but I don’t think they get me. They get excited about my past, which I am very proud of and clearly it’s the reason I am who I am today. But the book is really about my present and the future, what’s really exciting about my life. The book talks about how I battle life and death every day inside and outside of the operating room, and my own experiences and brushes with death – some that I’ve never told anybody before. And I relate all that to my experiences with my patients, and what it’s like to battle brain cancer. I am in the business of giving hope. I dedicated the book to my patients and their families and all those people who believe in me, who have given me an opportunity to do what I do today. They trust me with the life of their loved ones and their own lives, and I thank them and my family for being right next to me during these adventures.

HCB: Speaking of your patients, you write in the book about some of them. Can you share how they’ve impacted you?

Quinones-Hinojosa: I always focus on the things I can learn from my patients. How can I give them hope and how can I talk about brain surgery without putting people to sleep? A lot of people want to focus on happiness, but the reality is life is not all happiness. You have to enjoy every single moment, even the sad moments. I get a little knot in my throat when I think of one of my patients, Sharon. I will never forget walking into the room with devastating news for her. She was a young mother with a husband who had just come back from Iraq. We had operated on her and confirmed that she had a high-grade malignant tumor. I commended her on her courage and described the best and worst case scenarios and treatment options. I explained that the numbers mean little and it’s not helpful to put a finite time on time left. They insisted on knowing the general expectation so they could plan, and I told her she had maybe a year left but we’d try for two. Sharon did something I will remember for the rest of my life. She turned to her husband and put a hand on his knee and said softly, but powerfully, “I love you.” With those three words she said everything. She wasn’t thinking of herself, only her loved ones. Her husband who would be raising two young children on his own. She died six months later.

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HCB: That’s really powerful. You say the book is also about the future – about your work as a researcher and an investigator. What would you like to tell us about that?

Quinones-Hinojosa: I deal with heavy duty subjects every day – life and death, cancer. People say you’ll never find a cure for brain cancer, and I say to them you know, sometimes it’s not about reaching the end or the goal, it’s about the journey. Sure I may never find a cure, I am perfectly aware of that, but will that stop me from trying? Absolutely not. Trying is equally as important as doing or finding. That’s what I tell my children, my students, and that’s what my book is about. The moment you give up is the moment you lose a battle. It doesn’t matter how grave the prognosis may be, I will not give up.

Photo Credits: Max Franz and Keith Weller

Tags: Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Diversity, Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program, Voices from the Field