BALTIMORE - Currently, a wall is being built between Mexico and the United States because many Americans remain concerned illegal immigrants are draining our nation's resources without giving enough back. But one illegal immigrant shared his remarkable journey with WBAL TV 11 News reporter John Sherman -- a journey proving that potential can be hard to judge from across the border.
"I just take off, just like a sprint -- all this adrenaline going through my body. I just go over the fence, jump about 16 feet to the floor and run towards the United States," Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa said, remembering the day he fled to the U.S.
He was one of many Mexicans who flee to the U.S. out of desperation. He said poverty and the hope of a better life drove him to make the leap.
"We had no food. We had no place to live," he said. "I went from pulling weeds to pulling tomatoes, to picking cotton loops to picking grapes."
Quinones-Hinojosa said at first, he wasn't sure why he did it.
"(I thought) 'What am I doing here. Why did I do this.' I didn't have much in Mexico, but at least I had my family, my friends," he said.
But Quinones-Hinojosa doesn't work on a farm anymore. Nineteen years after he jumped a fence into San Diego with a few dollars and no English skills, he is now one of the best brain surgeons at the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
"Every day, everything I do -- it doesn't matter if when I was a welder or when I was a tomato picker -- I gave it my best," he said. "I have been so lucky and I often wonder what set me apart from the rest. The same year that I came, there were thousands of other illegal aliens who also crossed the border."
Quinones-Hinojosa, known as Dr. Q at work, now uses his hands on patients where the slightest movement can separate life from death -- the same hands that separating weeds from dirt not long ago.
"I do look at them sometimes, and I realize these are the same hands who now touch people's lives and brains. Nothing has really changed," he said.
Dr. Q's story bends the definition of possible. It's one that took him from the fence to the fields, from community college to the University of California at Berkeley and from Harvard medical school to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"I had hopes. I had dreams," he said.
As a child in Mexico, cruel poverty was his family's reward for hard work. As a teenager, he said he found his father in tears.
"I found him crying because he just couldn't provide. And I promised myself that I would do everything within my power to make sure that I provided for not just my parents and my siblings, but for my future family," he said.
That commitment led Dr. Q to the fields of California's San Joachin Valley.
"I just knew that if you keep working hard, things are going to turn around. I just had no doubt in myself," he said.
Dr. Q said he slept in a trailer at night, but by day he kept pushing at every opportunity.
"Someone gave me an opportunity to drive a tractor. It just took me minutes to pick it up. Then (there was) an opportunity to drive the cotton picker and it took me minutes to pick it up," he said.
Now, Dr. Q splits his time between surgery and his research lab. He said he believes he can find the cure for brain cancer -- a challenge the medical establishment has all but given up on.
"My heart just palpitates, and I wonder, 'How did I change this person's life today? How did I affect his or her memories? How did I change how this person will interact with his or her loved ones?'" he said.
One patient Dr. Q helped save was Rodney Banks, a 45-year-old construction worker with five grandchildren. Dr. Q successfully removed a benign tumor from Banks' brain.
"That's the thing about Alfredo. You take away his entire background and he's still a superstar in neurosurgery," said Dr. Matt McGirt, who works side by side in the operating room with Dr. Q for dozens of hours every week.
"That's truly amazing. And to do what he does now -- he's been blessed," Banks said after finding out about Dr. Q's background.
"One thing that this country absolutely values is hard work," Dr. Q often says when he tells his story to student groups at least once a month. "If you don't have high dreams, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
If Dr. Q has a secret to success, it may be his unshakeable confidence that you don't always have to know exactly where you're going in life. You just take a leap of faith, knowing there's no safer bet than one on yourself.
"I may never find a cure for brain cancer. But I don't care about that right now. I care about trying," he said. "The potential is in everybody. The question is, 'How do we harvest that potential?'"
Dr. Q became an American citizen in 1997. He lives in Bel Air with his wife and three children.