ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Guzzling Pedialyte on the Chicago Sky bench, there was very little that could have sapped the childlike joy from Elena Delle Donne on Thursday night.
"It was amazing," Delle Donne said after scoring 10 points in 11 minutes in her first game back in a month, an 87-74 Chicago victory over New York that keeps the Sky a half-game behind the Liberty for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. "Even when [coach Pokey Chatman] had her little freak-out at one point, it was great. It's just awesome to be back with the team, competing, being back out on the floor and I'm just enjoying every second of it."
Delle Donne missed 17 of Chicago's last 18 games because of another flare-up of Lyme disease, an inflammatory condition she contracted by a tick bite six years ago. Moments after she opened her eyes one morning a month ago, a familiar feeling swept over Delle Donne -- physical discomfort and the realization that came with it striking at the same time. And both were equally painful.
"It's difficult when I know it's coming and there's really nothing I can do about it at that point because it's too late," Delle Donne said. "That's what's frustrating. That day I woke up, just getting out of bed I was like, 'Uh oh.' It's that feeling and I know what it is when it comes."
Except this time, the feeling was worse. And the siege that would follow kept Delle Donne away from the team for a month while she underwent rigorous treatment under her doctor's care in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and served as still another reminder of the serious battle she is waging.
"You kind of get used to feeling crappy," said the 24-year-old Delaware native, who came off the bench and was shuttled in and out of the lineup Thursday in short increments, the longest being the last 3:09 of the first quarter.
It wasn't until three minutes into the third quarter when a glimmer of the old Delle Donne emerged -- she scored on her signature move, a runner in the lane, to notch her first points.
She scored from beyond 3-point territory less than a minute later to break a 45-all tie, then scored on a layup and completed the three-point play with less than three minutes left in the third to extend the Sky's lead to 61-53. She finished 3-of-8 from the field, including 1-for-3 from the 3-point arc, made all three of her free throws and added one rebound and one block.
"It was definitely emotional having her back," said Sylvia Fowles, who had 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Sky. "Having her back, you want to win, so you definitely go out there with an extra edge."
Up until the first week of June, Delle Donne had been getting by with her usual bi-monthly IVs of Vitamin C. She had even reported feeling much stronger during the preseason, having put on 12 pounds of muscle after a 2013 rookie of the year campaign left her dissatisfied following the Fever's sweep of the Sky in the first round of the playoffs.
In the Sky's June 6 loss to the Sparks, there was no sign of anything wrong when Delle Donne scored a career-high 33 points, including 16-for-16 from the foul line, a WNBA record for consecutive free throws in a game.
But the next day, in Atlanta, Delle Donne shot 3-for-10 from the floor for seven points in a 97-59 blowout by the Dream. She would miss the next five games, return to score 13 points in 17 minutes of a 79-69 loss to Connecticut, then miss the next 12 games in addition to the WNBA All-Star Game on July 19 after being the leading vote-getter in the East.
When she battled flare-ups of the disease in the past, Delle Donne's symptoms included fatigue and pain and weakness in her joints.
"This time it was the same type of thing, but I had a couple different symptoms as well, like body tremors and a lot more brain fog than I had experienced before," she said.
"It started off with me not feeling well. Then when I got home, they did all the blood tests again and my infections had skyrocketed. But I already knew before the blood tests came back that it was going to be bad."
Tests revealed that Delle Donne was suffering from Lyme co-infections, requiring sometimes twice-daily infusions of antibiotics as well as vitamins and nutrients to help boost her immune system.
But while her immune system was being boosted, her spirits didn't always follow.
"The treatment was difficult in itself and just feeling cruddy was also tough at the same time," she said. "Then being away from my teammates, it all just kind of adds up. It's a rough thing to handle."
Delle Donne said she was able to watch most games on Live Access. "The only times I couldn't was when I either had severe symptoms, like a migraine and just needed to go to sleep, or I'd be hooked up to an IV and couldn't really do anything," she said.
Making it harder was knowing her team clearly needed her and her 21-point average; the Sky went 5-12 without her as they struggled to stay in the playoff hunt.
"That's pressure in itself knowing I need to be out there for them," Delle Donne said. "But at some point you have to realize that health is more important than anything. I just really needed to get better because it wouldn't have been safe to be out there playing."
Every day, someone from the team -- players or coaches -- would call.
"They were incredible keeping in touch with me because I was at a point where I wasn't really reaching out," Delle Donne said. "I was kind of just going through the motions and someone would cheer me up every day. It motivated me to keep pushing."
The challenge now, she said, will be to schedule in weekly IV treatments, which leave her spent for the day, and remaining proactive by getting ample rest and regular massages for aching muscles. She texts her doctor every day, she said, to let her know how workouts are going and how she's feeling.
In the meantime, Chatman is carefully monitoring her minutes; Delle Donne played about 11 on Thursday.
"We had a benchmark in terms of minutes, but sometimes the game will go up and down and there's not lot of stoppage," she said. "But it was just a feel. Elena controls that. There was maybe one time where I just took her out before she gave me the nod."
Even as a decoy, Delle Donne said, she feels she can help the team. Fowles has no doubt.
"It's almost like you almost have to pick your poison," Fowles said. "Normally they send two, maybe three at me, but when Elena's in the game, it's always one-on-one. Her just being out on the court just makes it good."
Delle Donne reported feeling "great" after the game, joking that she told Chatman "It's not the Lyme, it's the lungs."
But it is the suddenness of Lyme flare-ups, she said, that prevented her from anticipating the latest setback. She does admit, however, that returning for the Connecticut game probably was a mistake.
"I do feel a lot better than that last game when I came back," she said. "I think I was trying to rush it. I just wanted to be with the team and be normal again."
While continuous treatments this past month are not adequate to return her immune system to normal, she said the worst symptoms have subsided a bit. And after losing 25 pounds during a particularly bad flare-up in college, Delle Donne said she was especially vigilant this time to keep the weight on.
"Obviously, I'm not going to be 100 percent ...," she said. "They say it's probably something I'll be battling my entire life, which is frustrating. But luckily with me, I'm healthy enough that I can go about a regular day. It doesn't feel good but I can push through it.
"The fact that I'm a pro athlete is what makes it a little more difficult for me. But I'm a lot healthier than a lot of Lyme patients I've seen, which is so unfortunate. But I think that's because I'm getting top-notch treatment and been staying on top of my case."
It infuriates Delle Donne, who was honored by the Lyme Research Alliance earlier this year for her advocacy work, that many "mainstream doctors" still do not acknowledge that Lyme disease can be chronic or even that it exists at all.
"That's the main thing I'm going for now," she said. "It's a shame. They try to say it's chronic fatigue [syndrome]. I've been a basketball player my whole life. How on earth do I have chronic fatigue one day and not the other day? So it's bogus stuff and hopefully the mainstream doctors will start to acknowledge it, because if they don't, there's going to be a lot of sick people out there."
Delle Donne said she is hoping to be healthy enough to attend training camp for the U.S. national team in Annapolis, Maryland, in September, when the roster will be chosen for the 2014 FIBA World Championship from Sept. 27-Oct. 5 in Turkey.
For now though, Delle Donne is simply feeling lucky.
"Especially now, I never take any game, any time I can be out on the floor, for granted," she said, "because it can be stripped from you at any time."