WNBA MVP with Lyme disease pens open letter after league denies season exemption amid COVID-19 pandemic

Many people have been forced to make the difficult decision of returning to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially risking their lives, or staying home and not getting paid — and WNBA player Elena Delle Donne is no exception.

“Honestly? That hurts,” Donne wrote of the decision she’s facing in an open letter about her health after the league denied her request to be exempted from play due to an underlying medical condition.

The league's reigning MVP has battled Lyme disease since 2008, and thought she would be medically excused from playing this season by a league panel due to the risks she said she faces from COVID-19.

But Lyme disease is not currently included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of underlying conditions that could put someone at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to Donne.

Donne’s open letter stated that she had her personal doctor who had been treating her since her Lyme disease diagnosis, and her team’s doctor, both approved a write-up of her medical history which should have been sufficient in allowing her to take medical leave while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, but that did not happen.

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“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,” she wrote. “I’m now left with two choices: I can either risk my life….. or forfeit my paycheck.”

Donne detailed how she has to take 64 pills every day in order to combat her disease.

“That’s 25 before breakfast, another 20 after breakfast, another 10 before dinner, and another 9 before bed,” she wrote.

And while taking the medications is exhausting, she said she does it anyway.

“I do it anyway because I have Lyme disease. 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,” Donne continued.

Donne suffers from what she calls “chronic Lyme,” which, according to her, is “a shorter way for me to say that this disease is still affecting me after more than a decade.”

The strain of Lyme disease that Donne endures is Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome with a current active infection due to a different strain of borrelia and bartonella, along with other “co-infections.”

“Unfortunately, there is no proven treatment for PTLDS,” according to the CDC. “Although short-term antibiotic treatment is a proven treatment for early Lyme disease, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found that long-term outcomes are no better for patients who received additional prolonged antibiotic treatment than for patients who received placebo. Long-term antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease has been associated with serious, sometimes deadly complications.”

“It is the most commonly occurring vector-borne disease and the sixth most commonly reported notifiable infectious disease,” the CDC stated. Despite this and the lack of a cure, Lyme disease is not listed as an “underlying health condition”.

Donne said she has maintained her delicate immune system despite the odds, and has thus far been “healthy enough to live something approaching a normal life.”

Then COVID-19 happened.

As someone with a compromised immune system, Donne took the threat of the pandemic seriously.

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“That’s not me bragging; those are just the instincts I’ve developed after almost 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,” she wrote.

The CDC has released information from ongoing studies that provide information for those who suffer from certain ailments that could potentially weaken the immune system, causing a higher risk for contracting the virus.

People who suffer from things such as cancer, HIV/AIDS or even those who suffer from obesity are more susceptible to COVID-19 as opposed to someone who is not suffering from any ailments, according to the CDC.

Donne went on to express how she believed it was an obvious decision for the league’s panel of doctors to exempt her from playing during the upcoming season as the onset of the pandemic finally bore down on the U.S., despite Lyme disease not being listed on the CDC’s website of underlying health conditions.

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The WNBA announced on June 15 that “after significant discussions with the league’s key stakeholders, including the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), the WNBA today announced elements of plans to return to the court to begin the WNBA 2020 season,” according to a news release.

Players were to report to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida in early July, where teams would attend a training camp and commence a 22 regular-season action tip off in late July, the news released stated.

The league panel’s denial of Donne’s exemption request stunned her, she said. She had seen it more as a formality, and hadn’t expected to be faced with the choice of potentially risking her life to return to work or not drawing a paycheck.

“So really all I’m left with is how much this hurts,” she wrote. “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,“ Donne wrote.

Donne went on to explain that she works very hard to be the superior athlete that she is, despite her disease. She recalled last season when she played with “three herniated disks” in her back.

She also expressed regret for not sharing her experience with the illness more publicly and bringing more awareness to how terrifying being diagnosed with Lyme disease can be.

“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,” Donne wrote. “But I have this platform and I want to help. I hope this is a start.”

And while she expressed her frustrations at potentially losing out on her pay, Donne acknowledged that there are millions who are going hungry and going without a home due to the current pandemic.

She highlighted how “Black and brown people, and especially Black and brown LGBTQ people — are dealing with food insecurity and homelessness.”

Despite her plight, Donne highlighted the one message she hoped would stick with readers: “There’s so much in the world that we don’t know.”

Pointing out that every type of illness is different and every person deals with differing situations and hardships, Donne said the best solution is “to listen to each other, and to learn from each other — with as much humility as possible.”

Donne noted that she has yet to make a decision on whether or not she will forgo her paycheck or continue to play amid the pandemic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.