From Sickle Cell to the Stage

Vanessa Gissel came into this world with sickle cell disease and a love for dance. At age 7, Vanessa suffered a near-fatal battle with acute chest syndrome, a common side effect of sickle cell disease. Though it meant time away from school and dance, a bone marrow transplant offered the best possible future for Vanessa. Against the odds, Vanessa's younger sister was a perfect bone marrow match. To prepare her immune system for its reboot, Vanessa underwent chemotherapy. Vanessa1 The successful transplant cured Vanessa from sickle cell disease. Her now-healthy body, though, needed to adjust to growing at a "normal" pace. When Vanessa chose to stay home from ballet class one afternoon, her mom knew the pain had crossed a new threshold. It was time to take a break from ballet and start physical therapy. When Atlanta Ballet's team heard Vanessa's story, they had an idea. With their performance of The Nutcracker in full swing, the team coordinated a special experience for Vanessa. vanessa6 Vanessa joined the company as their guest of honor at an evening show. From the front row of the Fox Theatre, Vanessa watched the dancers warm up and rehearse. vanessa4 And received an autographed pair of pointe shoes. vanessa5 Led by Kiara Felder, a company dancer with the ballet, Vanessa headed backstage for an up-close-and-personal encounter with the costumes. vanessa7 Stocked with tutus, masks and tiaras, the ballerinas' wardrobe room made for the ultimate game of dress-up. vanessa8 And, hey, if the tiara fits ... wear it. vanessa9 With less than an hour till showtime, the next stop was a private tour of the set to see the props that make The Nutcracker so special. vanessa10 For the grand finale, Vanessa joined Kiara on the Fox Theatre stage, a stage that's been home to some of world's greatest entertainers. vanessa11 Once Vanessa took her seat in the orchestra, Kiara headed backstage, the curtain drew upward, and it was showtime!