As a poor youngster staring at a dead-end future in Mexico, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa would often lay on the roof of his ramshackle home to dream of a brighter future.
Not even he dared dream his life would become this compelling.
Affectionately known as "Dr. Q," Quinones-Hinojosa recently was hired to be Mayo Clinic's chairman of neurologic surgery at its expanding Florida campus while leading federal research to cure brain cancer.
And, after long consideration, he's also given Disney the green light to turn his life story into a movie.
Expectations are high for the dramatic version of Dr. Q's life, especially since Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment's credits includes "12 Years A Slave," "Moonlight," "Selma" and "The Departed," among other blockbusters. The script is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 and it may hit theaters by the end of 2018.
'Knew something good would happen'
While it won't be a true documentary, the truth appears to need little embellishment.
"I used to go to the roof of my house and look at the stars — I knew something good was going to happen," Dr. Q said last week by phone from Florida. "There's a lot of people who immigrate to the U.S., but there's not very many who came from nothing to be where (I am) today. That's the story of the American dream, right?"
It's a timely topic with unambiguous political overtones. The Trump administration has cracked down on immigration and increased deportation efforts, which has raised the profile of sanctuary cities across the country.
Dr. Q entered this country illegally, and while he is now a U.S. citizen, it's an open question whether he would have been allowed to reach his current heights in today's politicized climate. As an 18-year-old who jumped a border fence to enter the United States in 1988, he didn't speak English, had no immigration paperwork and was essentially broke.
His first few years were spent in the fields as a migrant worker, earning enough money to learn English at a California community college. He overcame those obstacles to earn an academic scholarship at UC-Berkeley in 1991.
Three years later, his unusual ascent saw him enroll at Harvard, paving the way for him to become a brain surgeon.
'Real people who are changing the world'
The rags-to-riches immigrant story first caught the attention of Plan B's studio execs way back in 2007, while Dr. Q was Professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology, Neurology, and Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Director of the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. Jeremy Kleiner, who is now Plan B's co-president with Pitt, made his initial pitch to Dr. Q in 2007.
Dr. Q spent the next eight years respectfully declining Kleiner's periodic overtures. He finally reconsidered after seeing "12 Years A Slave," which won best picture at the 2015 Oscars.
"The world has a tremendous appetite for real stories," Dr. Q said. "I always tell people, 'I'm not an expert on immigration, I'm an expert on brain cancer and brain surgery.' Why my story resonates is we need stories of real people who are changing the world.
"I'm not a fancy person. I still take the trash out of my house and my kids always make fun of me because I know a lot about very little. At the end of the day, I'm just a regular guy — but my patients may think differently. They put their lives in my hands."
While filmmakers have been chasing Dr. Q's story for about a decade, Mayo Clinic's pursuit is actually longer. He turned down a 2005 job offer at Mayo's Rochester campus to work at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Q's decision this April to join the Mayo system — finally! — was hailed as "a coup" by Gianrico Farrugia, CEO of Mayo's Jacksonville campus. His arrival coincides with a $100 million expansion project, aimed at making Jacksonville a destination medical center for that part of the country and Latin America.
Construction is expected to start later this year on buildings to improve services for complex cancer patients and those seeking neurologic or neurosurgical care. That all falls under Dr. Q's purview.
'It's a real coup'
"Any place in the world would be pleased to have him coming," Farrugia told the Florida-Times Union. "It's a real coup to have him coming to Florida. I think he will have a remarkable impact on Jacksonville."
Forbes has named Dr. Q one of the most creative Mexicans in the world, while Popular Science has also dubbed him among the "Brilliant Ten" for his cancer research. The prestigious William J. and Charles H. Mayo Professor also presented May 18 at Tedx Zumbro River at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester about his quest to use stem cells to fight brain cancer.
While collaborating daily on an upcoming Disney movie that figures to make him a household name, Dr. Q's says he feels a particular kinship with Mayo due to its humble origins.
"They (Mayo Clinic's founders) went out in the middle of cornfields and built something that is unimaginable," Dr. Q said. "I came and basically went to work in the fields in California. I picked corn when I first came in 1987. I relate so much and in so many ways that I feel I have so many things in common with this amazing institution."