Elena Delle Donne teams up with First State School

Best friends Nate and James understand all too well what it’s like to have to push themselves to get up for school when pain and medical complications from their chronic illnesses make it hard to start the day. They were eager to gain some inspiration — and some basketball tips — from WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Elena Delle Donne at a recent basketball camp for students at Christiana Care’s First State School for chronically ill children and adolescents.

Delle Donne, a Christiana Care spokesperson, inspired the First State School students with stories of her own experience dealing with chronic illness. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2008, and at the camp she shared some hard-earned perspective with the middle and high school students for days when the challenges seem too great to overcome. She also led the students through activity stations coordinated by recreational therapist and physical education instructor Brittany Barnes, BS, coaching the students on dribbling, shooting and passing skills.

Pro basketball player Elena Delle Donne gave pointers on hoops and life to First State School students at Wilmington Hospital in December.

“Remember that whatever you put into your body is what it runs on,” Delle Donne said, encouraging the students to fuel their bodies with healthy fruits and vegetables and to stay hydrated.

“Set goals,” she said. “They don’t always have to be lofty ones, but once you get going and accomplish that goal — even if it’s just getting dressed and making it to school in the morning — you’ll find you feel good about yourself.”

And most important, Delle Donne said, “Surround yourself with great people. Be honest and open about how you are feeling. One thing I learned is that we can’t get through it alone.”

Delle Donne’s last lesson rang particularly true for James and Nate.

“Elena Delle Donne helped me understand that I can persevere through anything,” said James, an 11th grader who at times during the camp pushed aside his wheelchair to be part of the action. “The struggle is real, but I get up and do what I have to do.” He said that friends, like his buddy Nate, help the most by providing encouragement.

“We crack jokes to make each other laugh,” agreed Nate. Now in 10th grade, Nate is the longest-running student at First State School, having attended since kindergarten.

Located in Wilmington Hospital, First State School gives children and adolescents with illnesses that preclude attendance at regular schools the chance to attend school with their peers while they get the medical treatment they need.

Located in Wilmington Hospital, First State School gives children and adolescents with serious chronic illnesses — such as diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, severe asthma, cancer and other illnesses that preclude attendance at regular schools — the chance to attend school with their peers while they get the medical treatment they need. For 30 hours each week, they earn academic credit in subjects including English, math, social studies and science provided by certified special education teachers from the Red Clay School District, and they benefit from peer interaction.

The goal is to transition students back to their regular schools when medically appropriate, said Elizabeth Houser, MSN, APRN, First State School program director. But students are able to complete their education and earn diplomas from First State School.

The school even features many of the same rites of passage as comprehensive community-based schools, including classrooms, a principal’s office, field trips, end-of-year proms and lockers.

“The students love having lockers!” said Houser.

One of only three in operation nationwide and the first of its kind when started back in 1985, First State School was the brainchild of Janet Kramer, M.D., FSAM, a medical internist and director of Christiana Care’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Services until her retirement in 1999. The program is a collaborative effort by Christiana Care and the Delaware Department of Education through the Red Clay Consolidated School District. It serves as a quality model for the care of chronically ill children and adolescents for the American College of Physician Executives.

“I am so inspired by these students challenging themselves spending quality time being active,” said Delle Donne. “They are going through rough times, but they are great people and can each achieve their dreams. We can learn so much from each other.”

Academics are important at First State School, but administrators, teachers and the medical support team also recognize the importance of helping the students stay active and develop social skills. A basketball court seemed the perfect classroom for lessons in nutrition, fitness, perseverance and teamwork.

“Elena Delle Donne recognizes that health and wellness are team sports,” said Houser. “We are grateful that she is so committed to teaching our students new and fun activities that they can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle and achieve optimal health.”

Barnes, who teaches physical education at First State School and coordinated the basketball camp as an extension of her classroom experience, was inspired to see the students dribbling, passing and even making a few behind-the-back moves to impress their 6-foot-5 visiting role model.

“It’s important for the students to do something physical every day — they are kids, after all — so along with the fundamentals of games like basketball, we regularly teach them about stretching and breathing and, as Elena encouraged them, fueling their bodies with healthy foods,” Barnes said. “And today Elena is also teaching them about values and leadership and inspiring them with how she overcame her own obstacles to win a gold medal.”

Barnes did note that the students seemed to move a little faster with Delle Donne on the court than they do in one of her typical PE classes.

“Clearly Elena added the excitement factor,” she said.

While it’s always fun to have a celebrity in their midst, First State School students have an entire coaching staff of role models cheering them on throughout the school year. One who can directly relate to the students’ experience is paraprofessional Dominique Stevens, a student herself at First State School for two years, graduating in 2013. She is now pursuing a nursing degree and wants to practice in pediatrics, hopefully at First State School.

“First State School taught me that I wasn’t my illness. I was a person who had an illness, but I could still lead a normal life,” Stevens said. “I love working with children. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and they take everything in like sponges. Like Elena Delle Donne, I hope to inspire them that they can do what they want and achieve their dreams.”

School nurse Roger Rodriguez, RN, who helps the students work through many of their toughest medical challenges throughout the school year, was touched by their response to Delle Donne’s visit.

“Elena inspired the students to take ownership of their illness, but not let it limit them,” Rodriguez said.

Some students use wheelchairs. Others require oxygen. One is facing a knee replacement, yet all were having fun loving the game while learning about perseverance and teamwork. For one morning, on a makeshift basketball court in the Gateway Conference Center at Wilmington Hospital, each of them, students and star alike, got a free throw from pain and realized their dream of winning the game against chronic illness.

Q&A with Elena Delle Donne

What motivates you?

EDD:  “My older sister. Doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to do anything, and she has achieved so much. I want to emulate her.”

What was your greatest challenge?

EDD:  “Staying healthy while taking my body to the highest level. It was tough with a chronic illness. I had to work hard, train hard and pour good things back into my body by eating healthy.”

Did you ever feel “different?”

EDD: Being a 6-foot-5 female? Yes! My whole life I was different, but my sister helps remind me that we should celebrate and own our differences.”

How did you keep going when you wanted to give up?

EDD: “Many times I was down and out. I was lucky that I was able to share with my mom, who helped me put things in perspective. She taught me that it’s healthy to express it when you feel the pain. But then I need to stand back up. There are better times ahead — always.”

Were you afraid to tell people about your chronic illness?

EDD:  “Of course I wanted to seem strong and perfect, but there came a point where I realized I could do more by telling that I’m not perfect. If I can inspire just one person by being honest and telling my friends on days when I’m not feeling well, it’s worth it.”

What made you want to play basketball?

EDD: “My older brother. At first I just wanted to beat him and his friends! But then I fell in love with the game.”