Life, Death and Immigration Reform

A family member's cancer bout made this writer see how border wars divert attention from larger issues.

Immigration activists in New York City in May 2010 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)
Immigration activists in New York City in May 2010 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — The man who tried to save my young cousin’s life was born in Mexico. At age 19 he hopped the fence into the U.S. and worked as a farm laborer, then loaded railway cars with sulfur and fish lard, going to community college at night. A few years later, he was a student at Harvard Medical School. Two and a half decades later, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is one of the top neurosurgeons in America.

I found these details in a New York Times piece only after I had turned to Dr. Q, as many patients call him, for help. My cousin’s teen daughter had been diagnosed with a pontine glioma, an aggressive brain stem tumor. Many doctors called it inoperable. But Quiñones-Hinojosa and his colleague at Johns Hopkins, Dr. George Jallo, offered hope.

Well, Danielle Hudson passed away about two weeks ago, leaving her parents and two sisters, along with our close-knit extended family, heartbroken. But that’s not an indictment of her care. Quite the contrary.

Without these surgeons’ intervention, I doubt Danielle would have seen her 15th birthday or gotten to see another Christmas. She was whip smart and funny until the end. Just days before she passed away, she was asked if she was willing to use an eye patch to correct vision distorted by the tumor. Her reply: “Arrr, yes, matey!”

The death of someone so young makes it hard to think about much else. But after the first waves of shock passed through me (and more still come every day), I returned to the story of Quiñones-Hinojosa. He embodies the American dream, with a twist. He came to the country as someone we didn’t want, and then he fought his way through school and began saving lives.

The good doctor’s story sticks with me as our nation prepares for the political battles of President Obama’s second term. One of the first on the docket is immigration reform, which he explained this week includes a comprehensive plan that features three main points: better law enforcement, avenues for citizenship for the current undocumented population and modernizing the legal immigration system.