Twenty years ago Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, M.D., was a 19-year-old illegal immigrant who spoke no English and picked tomatoes in California’s San Joaquin Valley. On October 16 he gave the Commencement address to the 33 members of the Physician Associate Class of 2007, speaking as a renowned neurosurgeon and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

His path into medicine started with an industrial accident—he fell into a tank car that was used to carry liquefied petroleum gas. When he regained consciousness in the hospital and saw the man in the white coat, he said, “I felt a sense of security that a doctor was taking care of me.” His future, he decided, lay in health care. After attending San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, Calif., and the University of California at Berkeley, he eventually graduated from Harvard Medical School. Quiñones-Hinojosa now directs the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.

In his address, Quiñones-Hinojosa wove together the story of his own transformation from immigrant to surgeon with the awe he still feels at the power of his relationships with his patients. Referring to one patient, he said, “Imagine the trust he was putting in me at that moment.” In a talk that referred to Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, among others, he said, “It is not intellect that makes a great scientist, but character; and more than knowledge, it is the response to patients that matters most. … Remember, graduates—this is a very important lesson; there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.”

Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, told the new physician associates, “It is clear that the need for health care is so huge that you will become an increasingly important part of it.” He urged them to help their patients attain and maintain their health; to remain committed to lifelong learning and compassion; and to strive to become leaders in their field.

Student awards went to Deborah B. Cole, PA ’07, who received the Academic Achievement Award; Elisabeth M. Samels, PA ’07, who received the Clinical Excellence Award; and Matthew S. Cook, PA ’07, who received the Dean’s Humanitarian Award.

The Didactic Instruction Award for dedication and excellence went to Jeffrey E. Topal, M.D., clinical instructor in medicine and infectious diseases, known to students as the “antibiotic guru” of the pharmacology and microbiology courses. The Clinical Site Award, for a clinical rotation site that provides exemplary clinical teaching, was given to the Bridgeport Hospital Department of Emergency Services. The Jack W. Cole Society Award, for significant contributors who support the physician associate profession, was given to William L. Cushing, PA ’02, clinical instructor in medicine.