Quinn and her Special Friend Maria
Story by Dena Salehipour
Photos by Juanjo Marin
Quinn Henry never cries, but when the student volunteer heard the news that her little friend Maria had gotten surgery, she just couldn’t help it.
“I was just so happy that she got the surgery,” said Quinn, who attended a surgical program in Asuncion, Paraguay. “And I don’t cry, I’m not a crier at all, but I was fighting back tears because I was so happy. And that’s when I was like, ‘I don’t do that.’”
Her friends back home in Canada have even noticed her transformation, commenting on her newly developed “softness.”
We chatted with Quinn toward the end of the surgical program — read on for more about her powerful experience.
Operation Smile Student Programs: And what do you think that after this time here, you’ll take back to your club in Canada?
Quinn Henry: Stories. After ISLC (Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference), I brought back so much more appreciation for the organization so even more so after this. As well as wanting to get more involved and understanding that with my club and everything that I do at home. It’s not just about raising money and doing fundraisers and raising as much money as I possibly can. It’s about advocacy and getting people engaged and to get people to love Operation Smile just as much as I do.
OS: That’s beautiful. How do you feel now? You’ve had the experience of fundraising, especially with Canada fundraising so much for Paraguay. You now have the experience of seeing the change of so many children. How do you appreciate Operation Smile now?
QH: For example, when when I went into the O.R., it was surreal getting to watch the medical team perform the surgery, this short, remarkable surgery that changes smiles, that this whole organization revolves around. Seeing a patient before and after, it made me fall in love even more because everything that I do at home is playing out right here, right before my eyes and is actually real. Seeing the kids, it’s making me understand why we do all this, because it’s for people to have a better life and to love themselves so much more and to be happier and healthier.
OS: Did you have any patients that you connected with?
QH: Yeah. There’s a little girl, Maria. I played with her on Screening Day, and she had her surgery, which I unfortunately missed because I was sick, but then I got the chance to see her before she left. We had these little finger puppets that we always played with and I brought mine out on Tuesday morning. We were both just so happy to see each other because on Saturday I didn’t get to say bye to her. … And I was by her side the whole process and understood her story and her as a person. She was one girl who definitely changed my perspective on it all because she came from Argentina. … Despite everything, she was just the happiest, sweetest person ever. It was just her and her mom. They came so far together, and we’d be coloring and then she’d rip the page out and go show her mom and then come back. I think her and her mom’s relationship was really heartwarming to see. Also she was such a loving person, she would hug everyone, even someone just walking by. They would touch her back, just like to move her, and she would turn around and hug them. So just her kindness and her good heart. … Her being so happy constantly, even when she was in so much pain after her surgery. She got up and it was clearly hard for her to sit up, but she stood up to hug me and was playing with me, even though she probably just wanted to sleep.
OS: How old was she?
OS: After everything that you went through during this week, do you see any changes in yourself?
QH: Yes. I’m not bad with kids, but I was always awkward with kids, and (through this experience), I’m not awkward going up to them, and I’m a lot more soft. It’s pretty clear to a lot of people, especially myself, that I’m more emotional, more heart to heart, I think, with people.
OS: Do you think that there’s a specific moment when you noticed that?
QH: I think it was Monday when I was here sick, and I saw that Maria got surgery and I started crying because I was so happy that she got surgery. I was really sad that I wasn’t able to be there and hold her hand or hug her or anything. But I was just so happy that she got the surgery. And I don’t cry, I’m not a crier at all, but I was fighting back tears because I was so happy. And that’s when I was like, “I don’t do that.”
OS: And now that you’ve experienced the impact of surgical programs with Operation Smile, what’s something that stands out to you?
QH: I think how everyone within Operation Smile, whether it’s the volunteers or all the staff members, is like a big family. We all go out for dinner together, and we all drive around in the same car and everyone’s so comfortable around each other from the very start, and you just feel so safe, especially being halfway across the world. I’m only 17 and being around everyone, the volunteers and the staff, I’ve never felt homesick because it felt like I was with a family. So that definitely makes everything better and makes the experience so much more fulfilling.
OS: And my last question: For the people who are applying to the next program, what would you say to them?
QH: Do it! I was a little unsure at first because it’s a lot of school (to miss), and I’m in my senior year. Am I going to mess up? Am I not going to be the right person? And then since being here, it’s obviously changed me. I’ve learned so much. I learned more being here than if I was at home in a classroom. I’m never going to forget this, of course. And even the three girls that I’ve been with for the last 10 days, I’ve grown so close with. They’re my good friends now so I think that’s an opportunity of a lifetime. If you’re given the opportunity, definitely take it.