WNBA star writes candid essay about her 'chronic Lyme': 'I take 64 pills a day'

Elena Delle Donne says she's speaking out now after the WNBA refused to grant her a medical exemption from participating in the upcoming season.
Elena Delle Donne Shoot
Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics says she has lived with Lyme disease for 12 years.Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Maura Hohman

Elena Delle Donne was the MVP for the 2019 season of the WNBA, and at first glance, you might not think the star basketball player faces health challenges every day.

The Washington Mystics small forward is now opening up living with Lyme disease in an essay published Wednesday on The Players' Tribune, an outlet sharing stories by professional athletes. In the piece, she starts off saying, "I take 64 pills a day" and explains that this is to keep her illness "under any sort of control" but she also believes this amount of medication could be "slowly killing" her.

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Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics speaks at a post-game news conference on October 6, 2019, in Uncasville, Connecticut.Kathryn Riley / Getty Images

"If it’s not killing me, directly, then I at least know one thing for sure: It’s really bad for me," she wrote. "It’s a never-ending, exhausting, miserable cycle."

Delle Donne says she has had Lyme disease for 12 years, which weakens her immune system. The condition is spread through the bite of an infected tick and usually causes fever, headache, fatigue and a rash. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics within a few weeks, but if left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system.

In the essay, Delle Donne also reflects on the process that led to her Lyme disease diagnosis, which can be notoriously difficult for doctors to identify.

"I had these migraines, and these night sweats. I had extreme fatigue and body aches. I felt awful, all the time. But we still had no idea what it was," she wrote. "One doctor would look and think it was one thing, another doctor would look and think it was another thing, and so on.

"Even when I went to the right doctor, finally, a Lyme-literate doctor, who properly diagnosed me — even then there was still so much that we had no clue about. There were a million different treatments; there was a lot of trial and error."

Delle Donne said in her essay that she refers to her condition as "chronic Lyme," but the true medical term is "Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome." She explains that she has a current, active infection and other co-infections.

Still, she fights her condition in order to "keep myself healthy enough to play the game that I love — healthy enough to do my job and earn the paycheck that supports my family," she wrote.

When the coronavirus outbreak began, Delle Donne said she "immediately took it seriously" because of her condition. Then, when it was announced the season would continue with safety measures, she had to decide, with her physician's help, whether she could safely play.

"I still wanted to play, but I was scared," she wrote, explaining that they ultimately determined it was "too risky."

The 30-year-old athlete says she requested a medical exemption from participating in the upcoming WNBA season, which will continue amid the coronavirus pandemic. The exemption would let her receive her salary without playing, but that's reportedly not what happened.

When she filed her request for exemption, which she said included a report from the doctor treating her Lyme disease, she said she didn't even question whether she should qualify.

"I didn’t need a panel of league doctors to tell me that my immune system was high-risk — I’ve played my entire career with an immune system that’s high-risk!!!" she wrote. "I LIVE with an immune system that’s high-risk."

But the request was denied, Delle Donne said, adding, "I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life….. or forfeit my paycheck. Honestly? That hurts."

"What I hear in their decision is that I’m a fool for believing my doctor," she continued. "That I’m faking a disability. That I’m trying to 'get out' of work and still collect a paycheck."

Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics celebrates during game five of the 2019 WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun on October 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C.G Fiume / Getty Images

She went on to say that she wrote the piece in part because she wants "to take a more public role in the battle against Lyme disease," and that she knows her dilemma — whether to work and risk your life or forfeit your paycheck — is not unique to her.

After her essay was published, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault clarified that the team would pay her for the 2020 season, even if she didn't play, NBC sports reported Wednesday.

"The Mystics organization will never put Elena's or any other of all other players' health and well-being in jeopardy at any time," Thibault told reporters. "As in the past, both with Lyme disease history and on-court injuries, all decisions about her ability to play will be made jointly with Elena. She is a part of our roster."

"If at some point later in the season, we are all comfortable — I mean all comfortable — enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements," he added.

The WNBA did not immediately respond to TODAY's request for comment.