When Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa was approached last year about coming to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville as the William J. and Charles H. Mayo professor and chairman of the department of neurologic surgery, he was thinking about his legacy.
Dr. Q, as he is known to colleagues, calculated he had already “lived longer in this life than (the years) I have left.”
At 48, he was being asked to leave an elite hospital, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, currently ranked as the third best in America by U.S. News &World Report, to go to a very good hospital, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, which did not make the top 20 ( although it was named as the best hospital in Florida).
It wasn’t a difficult decision, Quinones-Hinojosa said.
“I was very happy at Johns Hopkins,” he said. “But here I am going to be part of history. My vision is that this is going to be the foremost destination medical center in the world. Hopkins was already a great place when I came, it was a great place while I was there and it was a great place when I left. I want to be transformational.”
Quinones-Hinojosa brought with him significant funding from the National Institute of Health, enough to make Mayo in Jacksonville one of the national leaders in NIH funding for neuro-oncology and neurosurgery.
Quinones-Hinojosa also brought a number of researchers from Hopkins. And his presence has attracted other top physicians, said Gianrico Farrugia, CEO of Mayo in Jacksonville.
Quinones-Hinojosa, who is animated and energetic in conversation, inspires his Mayo colleagues.
“He’s a delight to work with him,” said neurologist William Tatum. “I feel revitalized since he has joined the Mayo Clinic.”
“He was able to create something that was bigger than the sum of the parts,” Farrugia said.
FARM WORKER BEGINNINGS
Quinones-Hinojosa has traveled an amazing path.
Plan B Entertainment, which is owned by Brad Pitt, and led by Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Oscar winners for “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” optioned rights to Quinones-Hinojosa’s life story in 2007 after Kleiner heard about him on the radio. There are currently plans for a co-production of “Dr. Q” by Plan B and the Walt Disney Company.
“They’ve done several versions of the script but Jeremy Kleiner is not happy with it yet,” Quinones-Hinojosa said. “The story is about the American dream, not so much about me. It’s about the country, the most beautiful country in the world.”
Quinones-Hinojosa told the story himself in his 2011 book “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon.”
On Dec. 2, 1987, the day before his 19th birthday, Quinones-Hinojosa, who had grown up the oldest of six children born to financially struggling family in Mexicali, Mexico, entered the United State illegally. His first attempt that day to enter California by jumping the border fence failed as he was caught by border police. But he decided to jump the fence again and that time he eluded the patrol.
“You are the maker of your own destiny,” was the lesson he drew.
At the time, he wasn’t planning to become an American citizen. He had spent several summers, beginning at 14, as a migrant farm worker in the U.S. to earn money to help his family. This time his plan was to make a lot of money and then go back to Mexico, where he had been working as an elementary school teacher.
“Like many people, I thought I would make enough money to return to my country triumphant,” he said.
But he soon realized that for someone making $3.35 an hour that “dream was not real.”
PURSUING AN EDUCATION
Quinones-Hinojosa was working as a welder for a railroad company on April 14, 1989, when, at 21, he fell 18 feet into an empty petroleum tank. He began climbing a rope thrown to him by co-workers. But as he reached the top of the tank, fumes overwhelmed him and he fell again. He woke the next day in an intensive care unit. When he realized how close he had come to death, he began crying.
“I was sobbing for five or 10 minutes,” he said. “I’ve always felt that everything that has happened since then has been a gift. That cemented in me the need to keep working super hard. “
In 1991 he decided that he needed to pursue an education if he was ever to escape poverty.
“I very innocently told one of my cousins about my idea,” Quinones-Hinojosa said. “He told me I was living in La La Land.”
He had acquired a green card thanks to a California law that awarded legal immigrant status to people who could prove they were employed as farm workers. In 1991, he enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College. A year later he was awarded a scholarship and transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
He weighed going to law school or medical school. He chose medical school because his grandmother in Mexico was a curandero, a village healer.
During his second year at Harvard Medical School, he was walking down a hallway at the Brigham &Women’s Hospital when chief of neurosurgery Peter Black, pulled him aside.
“Have you ever seen brain surgery,” Black asked
Quinones-Hinojosa, who hadn’t, went into the operating room. “The patient was awake, brain pulsating,” he remembered. “It was magical, unbelievable. I got hooked.”
That same year he made another important decision. He would seek American citizenship. He became a citizen in 1999, the same year he gave the commencement speech after graduating cum laude from Harvard.
A series of internships, fellowships and residencies followed before he joined Johns Hopkins in 2005.
At the time the Mayo Clinic approached him, Quinones-Hinojosa was director of the Brain Tumor Cell Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
In 2011, one of Quinones-Hinojosa’s patients challenged him to run a half-marathon. Concerned he was out of shape — Quinones-Hionjosa had ballooned to 190 pounds — he accepted the challenge. He has maintained a fitness routine ever since, in the process dropping to 163 pounds.
He works out each Saturday and Sunday, mixing running with boxing.
Boxing sounds like an odd sport for a neurosurgeon, but while Quinones-Hinojosa fought three amateur fights as a teen, his only opponent today is an Everlast bag.
Each Saturday he’ll punch the bag for six five-minute rounds. Then he’ll run three or four miles. On Sunday, his routine is similar but some of the six five-minute rounds involve shadow boxing rather than hitting the bag.
When he runs, he likes to listen to ’80s pop music. And he thinks.
“He gets his best thinking done while he’s running,” said Nathan Smith, an administrator in the department of neurologic surgery, who grew up in Jacksonville and followed Quinones-Hinojosa from John Hopkins back to his hometown.
Quinones-Hinojosa lives with his wife Anna, three children, two dogs and two cats in Marsh Landing. The children are Gabriella, 18, David, 16, and Oliva, 12. The dogs are named Rocky and Apollo because “Rocky” is his favorite movie. The cats are named Leonardo Spiderman Quinones and Luna the Moon Quinones.
EMPHASIS ON RESEARCH
While he is a renowned neurosurgeon, Quinones-Hinojosa said he considers the work he does in the operating room an extension of the work he does in the research lab.
“He’s an incredible researcher,” said Tatum, his Mayo colleague. “… He’s got never-ending energy and the vision and foresight for trying to identify the unidentifiable. He has a thirst to cure the world.
“… Sometimes he asks, ‘Do you think we can cure the world?’ Before you meet him the answer is probably not. But when you meet him, his charisma and confidence level are so infectious you want to say yes.”
Quinones-Hinojosa’s research team of 30 people, about half of whom followed him from Hopkins, occupies about 6,000 square feet of laboratory space in the Griffin building.
“Our place is a community, a melting pot of ideas,” he said. “We’re finding cures, giving hope, changing the world.”
Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413