Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, chairman of Neurologic Surgery at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, stars in the second episode of “The Surgeon’s Cut” on Netflix.
Quiñones-Hinojosa — affectionately called “Dr. Q” — performs hundreds of brain and spine surgeries a year with his Florida team — many on patients who are awake during the procedure and can answer questions.
Initially, James Van der Pool, executive producer for BBC Studios Production, approached Dr. Q about his work at Mayo and his 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Mission: Brain. After several interviews that gave the BBC team a sense of his personality on camera, they began to grant the filmmakers — whom Dr. Q called “true journalists” — access to the surgical wing.
Most surgeries go well, but both the surgical and filming team had to be prepared for the worst.
“It isn’t easy to suddenly give access to people who are journalists,” he said. “We let them in, and they’re going to put whatever is there … it’s the artistic prerogative.”
Dr. Q gave even more credit to the patients who agreed to be part of the docuseries.
“I like to think that I am the least important person in that story,” he said. “Without everybody else, this cannot be possible. For me, the pinnacle of challenges was talking to patients. They have to be willing to share their story, which is hard — especially when they’re battling a very dangerous condition.”
All in all, sharing the screen with patients and colleagues was an “extraordinary experience,” Dr. Q said.
“It was humbling for me to know that there are people who are so caring,” he said. “That there are nurses, physicians, technicians who would do anything to give a patient hope.”
Since the docuseries landed on Netflix on Dec. 9, Dr. Q said he’s received hundreds of emails from viewers, fascinated by his combination of scientific knowledge and creativity.
The man behind the mask
Dr. Q hopes viewers come away understanding how much individuals can accomplish.
“We tend to sometimes think people who may not be as highly educated or highly skilled, or may not come from extraordinarily good pedigree, may not have much to contribute,” he said.
He knows otherwise.
Dr. Q grew up impoverished in Mexico and came to the U.S. at age 19, as an undocumented migrant worker. Twelve years later, he graduated from Harvard Medical School as class valedictorian and became an American citizen.
“I feel like I’m made of a billion mirrors, and that people can see pieces of themselves in me,” he said.
He recalled living in a leaking shack in California's San Joaquin Valley, learning English and working as a welder, and spending more than a decade working his way through Harvard, where he witnessed his first awake brain surgery.
A chance encounter with the head of Harvard’s surgical team as Dr. Q headed into the library to study on a Friday night led to a spur-of-the-moment invitation to scrub up and watch the resident team perform an awake craniotomy.
“I walk in next to him, and I see the face of a patient, awake,” he said. “I keep walking around, and suddenly, the resident had removed the skin, removed the skull, and I see the brain going like this,” he gestured with his hands. “My knees almost buckled. I couldn’t believe that one human being could trust another human being enough to open their skull — and they would be awake. That connection was powerful, and I fell in love.”
There are elements of Dr. Q’s life that didn’t make it into “The Surgeon’s Cut” — like much of his work with Mission: Brain, the charity he began in 2010, or the “heavy feelings” that come with knowing a patient could die in his hands.
“It’s not what you didn’t do that hurt a patient, but possibly what you did,” he said. “Those are the heavy feelings that come along.”
However, he’ll get another chance to tell his story — Walt Disney Co. and Plan B Entertainment Inc. announced their intention to make a movie called “Becoming Dr. Q” about his life.