An Open Letter About My Health

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Itake 64 pills a day.

Sixty-four pills: That’s 25 before breakfast, another 20 after breakfast, another 10 before dinner, and another 9 before bed.

I take 64 pills a day, and I feel like it’s slowly killing me. Or if it’s not killing me, directly, then I at least know one thing for sure: It’s really bad for me. Longterm, taking that much medicine on that regular of a regimen is just straight-up bad for you. It’s literally an elaborate trick that you play on yourself — a lie that you tell your body so it keeps thinking everything is fine.

It’s a never-ending, exhausting, miserable cycle.

But I do it anyway.

I do it anyway because I have Lyme disease. (Since I’m not a doctor, I say I have “chronic Lyme.” It’s a shorter way for me to say that this disease is still affecting me after more than a decade — I prefer it to the alternative, which is “Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome with a current active infection with a different strain of borrelia and bartonella as well as other co-infections.”) Taking 64 pills a day is the only way to keep my condition under any sort of control. It’s the only way 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.

Healthy enough to live something approaching a normal life.

Elena Delle Donne

I regret not having done more in the past to speak up about Lyme disease. It’s a terrifying thing to live with, yet not many people know much about it — and I take my fair share of responsibility for that. I could have been using my platform to help raise awareness, and to help improve understanding. I could have been helping so much more.

I know that I need to help so much more.

I know that I need to help us get to a place with Lyme disease where what happened to me this past week never happens to anyone else.

Here’s the gist of what happened.

When news of COVID started spreading, I immediately took it seriously. That’s not me bragging; those are just the instincts I’ve developed after more than a decade of living with Lyme disease. I’ve been told time and time again over the years that my condition makes me immunocompromised — that part of what Lyme does is it debilitates my immune system. I’ve had a common cold that sent my immune system spiraling into a serious relapse. I’ve relapsed off of a simple flu shot. There’s just been so many instances where I’ve contracted something that shouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but it blew my immune system out and turned into something scary.

It’s a terrifying thing to live with, yet not many people know much about it — and I take my fair share of responsibility for that.


That’s just something I deal with. And so when I read that immunocompromised people are at a higher risk with COVID, I took every possible precaution. (Which, by the way, I realize is a huge privilege I have that most people don’t.) I treated COVID like any high-risk person should: as a matter of life and death.

So when the WNBA started the process of organizing the bubble, I paid careful attention to what measures they were putting in place to make it safe. I know how much work went into this, and I know so many people at the league put in crazy hours to protect the players and make it as safe as possible. But the fact of the matter is, I was told that when it came down to it, it would be impossible to keep COVID-19 out of the bubble entirely. And then Florida cases started rising. And even if the bubble is the safest place in Florida….. if I had to go to a hospital, and the hospital was overwhelmed, then what?

I still wanted to play, but I was scared. I talked to my personal physician about what the league planned to do, and he felt it was still too risky.

When the league began reviewing players’ cases to see who should be granted a health exemption from the bubble (meaning the league excuses you from playing, but you don’t have to give up your salary), I didn’t even think it was a question whether I would be exempt or not. 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!!!

I LIVE with an immune system that’s high-risk.

But I made sure to follow protocol.

The doctor who treats my Lyme disease wrote up a full report, detailing my medical history and confirming my high-risk status. The Mystics team doctor (who is awesome, but who’s never treated my Lyme disease) wrote a report essentially deferring to my Lyme disease doctor, and agreeing about my high risk profile. I filed both reports to the league, as required, along with a signed form waiving my right to an appeal.

A few days later, the league’s panel of doctors — without ever once speaking to me or to either of my doctors — informed me that they were denying my request for a health exemption.

I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life….. or forfeit my paycheck.

Honestly? That hurts.

It hurts a lot. And maybe being hurt just makes me naive. And I know that, as athletes, we’re not really supposed to talk about our feelings. But feelings are pretty much all I have left right now. I don’t have NBA player money. I don’t have the desire to go to war with the league on this. And I can’t appeal.

So really all I’m left with is how much this hurts. How much it hurts that the W — a place that’s been my one big dream in life for as long as I can remember, and that I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to for seven going on eight seasons — has basically told me that I’m wrong about what’s happening in my own body. What I hear in their decision is that I’m a fool for believing my doctor. That I’m faking a disability. That I’m trying to “get out” of work and still collect a paycheck.

Yup….. they caught me.

That’s why I played in the finals last year with THREE HERNIATED DISCS IN MY BACK.

That’s why I work out during the seven months a year when we’re not in season, when no one’s watching me, when I’m not collecting my player salary.

I don’t have NBA player money. I don’t have the desire to go to war with the league on this. And I can’t appeal.

That’s why I’ve crammed my 6’5” body into so many coach class flights that I almost forget what it’s like to have legs and feet that aren’t dangerously swollen.

That’s why I take 64 pills a day.

Because I’m the type of player who makes up a condition to avoid playing basketball.

They figured me out.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty

For the record: I’m not writing this letter to announce my plans. I’m still thinking very carefully and weighing my options.

But I wanted to write this for three main reasons.

First, like I said: I know it’s way past time for me to take a more public role in the battle against Lyme disease — a battle that I’ve been fighting mostly privately for years. I’m truly sorry that I didn’t do more, sooner. But I have this platform and I want to help. I hope this is a start.

Second, I know that the decision I’m facing — risk my life or forfeit my paycheck — is far from a unique one. I know that millions of Americans right now, in situations that are much worse than my own, are facing similar decisions. And of course many are dealing with even worse than that: Millions more are out of work entirely. Many of them — especially Black and brown people, and especially Black and brown LGBTQ people — are dealing with food insecurity and homelessness. I want to express my deepest solidarity with them.

And then the last thing I wanted to say here — and probably the best lesson I’ve learned through my experience with Lyme disease — is this: There’s so much in the world that we don’t know.

It’s something that I started to think about around when I first started showing symptoms for Lyme. 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. For a while we had no clue. 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; there was a little bit of everything.

It’s way past time for me to take a more public role in the battle against Lyme disease — a battle that I’ve been fighting mostly privately for years.

And in a weird way, going through that became this sort of realization for me.

I think when you’re younger, and growing up, if you’re relatively healthy, you think of the world as very black and white, very solutions-oriented: When this happens, we do that, and then it’s fixed. Or: When I feel sick, I go to the doctor, and then I get better. That was more or less how I viewed things. But then all of the uncertainty with my Lyme diagnosis happened, and I went on that whole journey….. and it really began to hit me, I guess, just how much is out there that we don’t know.

Now, 12 years into that journey, it’s still hitting me how much we don’t know.

And whether it’s these last several months of pandemic that we’ve been dealing with and doing our best to adapt to, or it’s these last several weeks of activism that have inspired the rethinking of so many of our old power structures, or it’s anything else…. I feel like this entire year, in some way, has been one long example of that same type of journey — of people discovering things that they didn’t know about the world, and realizing how much they still have to learn.

And that can be pretty intimidating, for sure. It can be stressful to think about.

But I also think there’s a valuable idea in there — just in terms of how we treat other people.

I think the idea is something like: We can never fully understand what someone else is going through, or what they’ve been through — in the same way that no one else can ever fully understand what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through.

There’s so much in the world that we don’t know.

Which means the best that we can do is to listen to each other, and to learn from each other — with as much humility as possible.

I hope that in the future the WNBA can aspire to do the same.


Thanks,

Elena

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