Fairy godmothers of folklore fame are magical creatures, capable of turning pumpkins into carriages and making wishes come true. At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, 91-year-old Jackie Viener has played that role every Tuesday for seven years.
Like a fairy tale version of a superhero, the mild-mannered great-grandmother disappears into a coat closet in the hospital’s volunteer services office and emerges transformed by a pink bridesmaid’s dress, a magic wand and a tiara fashioned from pipe cleaners.
“When she arrives, she lights up the whole room,” says Chris Jones, director of volunteer services at Children’s Healthcare. “She is one of the world’s best huggers.”
In the hospital lobby, children suffering with sickness and injury gather around her, vying for attention. There they don costumes, wave wands and listen as Viener, a native of Manchester, England, reads them fairy tales about magic kingdoms and princesses and knights in shining armor.
Over the years, she has been the conduit for many secret wishes.
“I can’t grant a wish, but I can give a wish,” she says when a child asks. “There is a big difference.” Then she takes the child’s hand, touches her finger to the tiny palm and says: “You can’t see it, but there is one tiny speck of fairy dust right there. Close your hand. Close your eyes. Make your wish, but you can’t tell anybody what your wish is unless it comes true.”
And sometimes those wishes do, in fact, come true.
Just ask Dustin Fuller. He was a teenager from Coweta County who contracted the MRSA superbug following surgery to repair injuries from an automobile accident. He was, Viener says, “very, very, very ill; actually not expected to live.” On his 19th birthday, he went into septic shock and his heart stopped beating, but he eventually stabilized and slowly began to recover. One day he asked Viener for a wish, and he continued to improve. When the day came for him to finally leave the hospital, he asked for one more wish. Viener wouldn’t see Dustin again until a year later.
“We were doing story time at the hospital and all of a sudden we hear somebody saying, ‘Fairy Godmother, Fairy Godmother,’” Viener says. “And we looked across and there was a Marine coming toward me in full dress uniform including his white gloves, and as he came toward me I realized it was Dustin.”
“Fairy Godmother,” Fuller said, “I wanted you to see that your wishes come true.”
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a photo editor in 1993. Eventually, he returned to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. In 1984 he won a World Hunger Award for covering a famine in Sudan. While covering this story, Viener granted Compton a wish. After Lex Money received his second heart transplant and went home, where he continues to improve, Compton told Viener that another one of her wishes had come true.
A STORY IN PICTURES
AJC photographer Curtis Compton spent a month roaming the corridors of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston to capture the joy Jackie Viener brings children suffering from serious disease. Today, we publish his captivating photo essay. Compton learned about Viener at Haven Fellowship Church in Conyers when he was approached by fellow church member Tom Kilpatrick, who volunteers at Children’s. Kilpatrick told Compton about how much Viener’s visits meant to the young patients. All it took was one meeting with Viener, and Compton was charmed.
Each week, we publish the best writing to tell compelling stories from our community. Today’s Personal Journey uses the power of photography, and the skill of our award-winning photographers, to show you people and places you wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s the kind of intimate, sensitive photography that you won’t find anywhere else.
Assistant managing editor
Next week: Revisit people profiled in past Personal Journeys and see where they are today.