CHICAGO – One by one, Bulls players stopped at courtside before Monday’s game to introduce themselves to Elena Perez.
The 6-year-old Cary girl barely could believe what was happening. She had come to see the Bulls. Now, they were coming to see her.
Taj Gibson palmed her head like a basketball.
Pau Gasol extended his index finger and tickled her beneath her ear.
Aaron Brooks wrapped his arm around her for a picture.
“We’re going to have a good game today, OK?” Brooks told Elena and her sisters, 9-year-old Evelyn and twin 6-year-old Vanessa. “You guys have fun! Nice meeting you!”
They had fun, all right.
Elena and her family received star treatment as part of the team’s Embrace-a-Bulls program, which provides families battling difficult medical conditions with a VIP experience. The Perez family learned about the program from the pediatric coordinator at Advocate Good Shepherd in Barrington, where Elena has spent much of her young life.
Elena was born without a right lung. She relies upon a tracheostomy and a ventilator, and she eats through a feeding tube. Her mother, Lindsay, estimates that Elena has spent upward of 500 days in intensive care.
That’s what made Monday so special.
Elena wasn’t confined to some hospital bed. She was standing on the edge of the United Center court about 90 minutes before the Bulls tipped off against the Houston Rockets.
It seemed like a fantasy. Then, reality interrupted.
A kit near Elena sounded a familiar beep. Lindsay Perez sprung into action to administer her daughter’s feeding.
“She’s fed through a G-tube, so at the end of her feeding, I have to give her this cornstarch,” Lindsay Perez said. “She has pretty severe hypoglycemia, and it’s cornstarch that helps stabilize her sugar.”
Elena knew the drill. She didn’t fuss. Instead, she smiled and waved her hands to the Bruno Mars song that boomed from the speakers above.
“ ’Cause girl, you’re amazing, just the way you are... ”
Lindsay laughed about it afterward.
“Did you see her dancing?” she said.
It was impossible to miss.
For Elena, the experience was impossible to forget.
“It’s so fun,” Elena said. “The court is awesome.”
Her sisters agreed.
“It was super fun,” Vanessa said.
Before Monday, big sister Evelyn said, the tallest person she ever met was her grandpa. She grinned as she and her family walked to center court for a picture at the conclusion of pregame warmups.
“A lot of people would really be grateful to go on the court,” Evelyn said. “I think that our whole family is really grateful.”
The whole family is grateful for Elena, too.
“She’s really tough,” Evelyn said. “She’s been through a lot of stuff.”
The same is true for the entire family.
“They are such compassionate little girls,” Lindsay Perez said. “With my little ones, we have rules in my house: who calls 911; when; what they do next. Because I only have two hands.”
Nearby, Elena was using her two hands to high-five 6-foot-10 forward Nikola Mirotic.
“We’ve spent months and months in our house before where we couldn’t even leave,” Lindsay Perez said. “So, to be at this point in her health that we’re able to do something like this – aside from the fact that we’re sitting on the court right now – even just being near people, we weren’t able to do that before.
“This is putting things into perspective for me about how far she’s come in life. She’s super inspirational. She’s definitely my hero. All my girls are.”
• Tom Musick occasionally writes columns for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tcmusick.