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Farm worker to brain surgeon
The education of Dr. Q & his Manteca connection
Renowned brain surgeon and former farm worker, Dr. Alfredo Quiones-Hinojosa, speaks to a packed audience at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

STOCKTON – In the book, “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon,” the six-page acknowledgments ends with these three sentences: “How can I thank my wife? Anna, you are the best in-house editor, fellow traveler, life partner, friend, mother, and role model I could have imagined in the journey of writing this book. Thank you for everything. I love you.”

The author is UC Berkeley and Harvard graduate Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa who, in his just published autobiography, traces his incredible journey as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico – picking tomatoes and cantaloupes as a farm worker in the San Joaquin Valley – to finally becoming an internationally recognized brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins University.

His wife is the former Anna Peterson of Manteca. They met at Delta College when both were enrolled at the Stockton junior college. While Dr. Q. was at UC Berkeley and Harvard, Anna lived with her mother and sisters in Manteca until she was ready to join him and made the move to the East Coast. They were married while he was at Harvard. One of the pictures in the book shows a smiling Dr. Q during his graduation from Harvard in 1999. He is carrying his six-month-old daughter Gabbie, the oldest of the couple’s three children, and shaking hands with Surgeon General Satcher.

Quiñones-Hinojosa, known simply as Dr. Q, shared his amazing story to a standing-room-only appearance on Saturday in the Atherton Auditorium of San Joaquin Delta College, the campus where his education journey started which eventually brought him to the hallowed halls of one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals in neuroscience research and neurosurgery.

In the hour-long presentation that was frequently punctuated by enthusiastic applause from the packed audience, the 43-year-old Dr. Q. shared firsthand many of the awe-inspiring vignettes in his life including one heart-stopping accident that nearly took his life while he was working as a welder at the Port of Stockton. His roughly hour-long presentation was generously interspersed with inspirational messages of hope and encouragement to his attentive audience.

“It’s not the education but what you do with the education that’s important,” was one of his shared nuggets of wisdom.

Dr.Q’s nuggets of wisdom

His education began in the fields of Fresno, he said, smiling broadly as he happily noted, “I came to the cantaloupe center of the world.” And, as it so happens, “I love the cantaloupe,” he said, adding, “I love the smell of tomatoes,” which he also picked in the fields as an undocumented migrant farm worker.

Other inspirational messages he delivered to his audience which included families with young children:

•“I was proud of every simple thing I did (including being a farm worker picking tomatoes in the fields). I wanted to be the best tomato picker in the world.”

•The American dream is very much alive. “Some people think the American dream doesn’t exist anymore. I tell you, the American dream is still alive.”

•“America was built by people like us – immigrants – and by hard work.”

•“Nothing, nothing is free in life. That’s what I tell my kids all the time. Nothing is for free in this country.”

•“Many times, people tell you, you can’t. I’m here to tell you, can’t should not be in your vocabulary.”

•Always dare to dream. “If you can feel it and your head can conceive it,” then work hard to achieve and fulfill that dream. Hard work is “the price of triumph.”

•“Learn how to multi-task. It is important to learn that.”

•The brain is like the universe that he gets to hold every day, he said. Of that experience, he said, ‘I’m very humbled every single day.”

In his book, Dr. Q traces his life from an impoverished childhood in a village of 500 families in Palaco, Mexico, to the tomato and cantaloupe fields in Mendota, California, to his miraculous jump over the barbed-wire border fence to America, attending school at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, and finally becoming a renowned leader in the cutting-edge research to find a cure for brain cancer at Johns Hopkins University where he performs 250 brain surgeries a year. The book is filled with gripping accounts of his brushes with death – there are several of them in the book – and many firsthand experiences of being treated as an invisible member of humanity because of his accent and ethnicity.

Copies of Dr. Q’s book were available for purchase at the program on Saturday which concluded with a book signing by the author.