Delle Donne's Blind Sister Is The Family MVP

Hartford Courant, CT, USA
Friday, October 12, 2007

Delle Donne's Blind Sister Is The Family MVP

By Jeff Jacobs 

Lizzie knows things. 

She knows she loves the feel of a cool breeze in her face when her sister 
drives her around the neighborhood in a golf cart. She knows she loves to swim 
forever. She knows she likes those pillows that vibrate. She knows she loves a 
thick steak.

"Red meat and noodles," said Lizzie's mom, Joan. "She'll walk into the house 
and her sense of smell is so keen, just the smell of her favorite dinner makes 
her so happy."

This is what Lizzie Delle Donne doesn't know and this is what Lizzie could 
never know. She doesn't know that her sister, bound for UConn next year, has 
been one of the most sought-after high school players in the history of women's 
basketball. She doesn't know that her sister has a chance to take her place 
among the greatest women's basketball players who ever lived. 

Lizzie doesn't know her sister even plays basketball.

"No idea," Joan said. "She loves Elena for Elena, and not Elena the basketball 
player. That's beautiful."

"Lizzie is awesome," Elena said.

Elizabeth Delle Donne was born deaf and blind. She has cerebral palsy. She has 
autism. She has undergone 30 surgeries in her 23 years, ranging from 15-hour 
microsurgery to detach a tethered spinal cord to seven cornea transplants that 
briefly gave her limited sight and ultimately were rejected. She can hold a 
basketball and can't do a lick with it. Yet the fact that Lizzie can put as 
many footsteps together as she does, when few were expected, is hailed within 
this most athletic family as its great physical achievement. 

Without sight, without hearing, touch and smell are Lizzie's link to her world. 
She knows her family. She knows Kim Nguyen, who has helped care for her for 
more than a decade. Lizzie smells Elena's hair; that's how she knows it's her 
sister. She communicates with 35 to 40 simple signs, hand over hand. The sign 
for stand, the sign for eat. Drink. Sleep. Life's basic needs.

"Lizzie's not going to hold a conversation with you about the weather or how 
the Red Sox are doing," said her dad, Ernie. "But she can show you plenty about 
perspective.

"I know for an absolute fact that from day one both Gene (who plays football at 
Middle Tennessee) and Elena saw that when Lizzie had a problem, physical or 
mental, her needs superseded theirs. They would have to wait at times. Yet 
think about how difficult it would be to be angry about playing a bad 
basketball game when you see your sister having trouble walking up a flight of 
steps. There is real perspective, some incredible lessons the entire family, 
myself included, have learned, and I know we're all better for it."

Together, Ernie and Joan spent the early years of their marriage in hospitals, 
sorting through operations. Later, they would have to assuage Lizzie's panic 
with plenty of hugs and without any words. They would have to deal with temper 
tantrums that would forever go unexplained.

It wasn't easy, it was never easy.

"Yet as the years go by, you actually feel lucky to have a special needs 
child," Joan said. "There are such pleasures she brings us that other families 
don't get to experience. She constantly reminds all of us of what makes you 
happy, what's important."

And that is?

"The little things in life," Joan said.

Joan talks about the power of a little kiss on the cheek. A walk, a jump, a 
swim, a push on a swing. Joan says you haven't seen joy until you've seen Elena 
and Lizzie outdoors.

If you listen close enough, special people such as Lizzie shout life's great 
lessons without a voice. They teach without trying. With the touch of a finger, 
Lizzie has helped create an unbreakable bond within a family and between 
sisters. With a giggle, she can offer perspective the most learned of 
academicians cannot.

"I look up to Lizzie more than anyone else," Elena said. "She's an inspiration 
to me."

"On one hand, I know Elena holds out Elizabeth as her role model because she is 
so courageous," Ernie said. "On the other hand, she thinks Lizzie is the cutest 
human being ever born. She's both Elena's big sister and her little baby."

The two are very close, Joan said.

Extremely close, Ernie said. 

Elena, 18, is in her senior year at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del. Lizzie 
is doing well at the Mary Campbell Center. This year is good. The separation 
comes next year and it will not be easy.

"It's going to be really sad," Elena said. "I'll miss her a lot. It'll be a big 
piece of my life missing."

Elena will be in Storrs tonight for First Night, and a few days away is no big 
deal. Weeks, even months, is a different story.

"I know it will be hard," Joan said. "They can't talk on the phone. They can't 
have the normal contact sisters have. When Elena was young, it was hard on her 
to see all the surgeries. Lizzie had seizures and those upset her. Elena has 
always worried about Lizzie."

Joan let out a slight sigh. One reason why it is great that Elena is going to 
Storrs, she said, is that it's only 41/2 hours from Delaware. Elena can come 
home. They can visit UConn. They are committed to bringing Lizzie to some 
games. Bigger arenas can accommodate Lizzie's needs, whereas high school gyms 
can't. It'll be good for her, Joan said. Lizzie can feel the noise and it 
stimulates her. She can feel good vibrations. 

Or maybe she already has.

"I've got to tell you this story," Joan said. "Geno Auriemma came for the home 
visit two weeks ago and went right up to Lizzie to introduce himself, to touch 
her, to let her feel his hand. It takes Lizzie a long time to warm up to people 
she doesn't know. It's what's called tactile defensiveness.

"Well, Lizzie just jumped from the couch, jumped into Geno's arms and kissed 
his face. She has never, ever hugged anybody she didn't know. I can't tell you 
how shocking it was for us. It was amazing to see her give Geno this kind of 
affection in a matter of seconds. I don't know, it was almost like she was 
telling us we had made the right choice, letting Elena know she made the right 
choice. For us, it was a special moment."

Like we said, Lizzie knows some things.

Contact Jeff Jacobs at
jjacobs @courant.com.


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