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Duluth girl battles sickle cell anemia with help from little sister

The journey of 11-year-old Vanessa Gissel, of Duluth, who undergoes a bone marrow transplant thanks to her 2-year-old sister, Sarah, in hopes of curing her of sickle cell anemia.


Left to right, Gregory, 
Vanessa, Sarah and Dominique Gissel walk through the hallway as they prepare to depart from Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta after Vanessa’s checkup visit following a bone marrow transplant from sister Sarah. (Staff Photos: Brendan Sullivan)

Left to right, Gregory, Vanessa, Sarah and Dominique Gissel walk through the hallway as they prepare to depart from Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta after Vanessa’s checkup visit following a bone marrow transplant from sister Sarah. (Staff Photos: Brendan Sullivan)

After an emotional and challenging 2013, Vanessa Gissel is looking forward to the new year.

The 11-year-old girl from Duluth endured long stints away from home after undergoing a bone marrow transplant to treat her sickle cell anemia. It was a difficult journey — 39 straight days in the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta followed by 32 nights in the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House — but one made easier by the love and support of her family.

The Gissel family is a tight-knit one — mother, Dominque, father Gregory and Vanessa’s sisters: 14-year-old Ariel and 2-year-old Sarah. Vanessa’s transplant illustrated that, with the family there for her every step of the way, no one more than little Sarah, who donated her bone marrow to Vanessa.

“I think about it every day, the chance that we had. I feel so lucky that we had Sarah and that she was a perfect match for Vanessa,” Dominique said.

Transplant day was July 17 and seven days of chemotherapy preceded that. But Vanessa’s medical issues started years before, when she was 7. She had a life-threatening episode on Halloween that year, suffering acute chest syndrome, and five months later got very sick again and was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.

A transplant was discussed, but the risks involved led the family to contemplate it for some time. Then came Sarah, a perfect bone marrow match, and when she became old enough the Gissels decided to move forward with the idea.

It was a difficult decision, one validated by its success.

“I think, ‘Oh my God, she’s cured,’” Dominique said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that type of feeling.”

Vanessa returns to the hospital every two weeks for a check up, but now, almost six months after the transplant, her hair is growing back as she looks forward to finishing home schooling and returning to B.B. Harris Elementary School. But mostly, she looks forward to going to the pool when the weather allows.

She is also hopeful that her family will vacation to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee in the upcoming year. And that normalcy has soothed the Gissel family.

“She’ll be able to get married, have kids, pick a profession,” her mother said of the future that awaits Vanessa. “I feel like we can do anything now.”

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Vanessa's journey through a bone marrow transplant

The journey of 11-year-old Vanessa Gissel, of Duluth, who undergoes a bone marrow transplant thanks to her 2-year-old sister, Sarah, in hopes of curing her of sickle cell anemia.

The journey of 11-year-old Vanessa Gissel, of Duluth, who undergoes a bone marrow transplant thanks to her 2-year-old sister, Sarah, in hopes of curing her of sickle cell anemia.