If you haven’t heard, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) player Elena Delle Donne recently (about one month ago) addressed an open letter regarding her health to the WNBA, criticizing them for denying her request for medical clearance this season. (Even with a medical waiver from her doctor!) Delle Donne not only underwent back surgery earlier this year, but suffers from chronic Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection primarily transmitted by the bite of a deer tick or black-legged tick and is now the most common disease transmitted to humans via blood-sucking pests in the U.S. It is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. When Lyme is not treated early on, many develop a variety of chronic and debilitating symptoms, thus the term “chronic Lyme.”
Lyme disease is an overlooked epidemic, and Delle Donne’s story only further proves that.
It’s taken us some time to collect our thoughts on this, and as time went on, we realized it didn’t feel right to not join the conversation. Keep reading to learn why we think this is about more than just a single basketball player and her Lyme disease journey.
We’ll be honest. We hadn’t previously followed the WNBA until news broke that Elena Delle Donne suffers from chronic Lyme disease, too, so here’s some context:
In Delle Donne’s case, she maintains the ability to keep playing the game she loves by taking 64 pills a day. As Lymies, we understand what that feels like—and what cost taking all these medications comes with. Delle Donne describes it as an “elaborate trick that you play on yourself” and a “never-ending, exhausting, miserable cycle.” Sound familiar?
The league is having players quarantine and play its season in a Florida “bubble.” While many precautions are being taken to prevent COVID-19 exposure, there is no guarantee that the bubble will remain COVID-free.
As 2019 MVP and fan favorite, it would be a huge loss to not have Delle Donne play. So when they denied her medical clearance, we are sure many figured it just came down to money.
She is receiving the maximum pay a WNBA player can be making. In cases like Delle Donne’s, pay was not the point and she recognizes that she is privileged in that regard.
We saw the WNBA’s decision as an even bigger statement. When they denied her medical clearance request, we know what it came down to: the league doesn’t take Lyme disease seriously. Because who does?
Delle Donne says that a single cold can send her immune system “spiraling into a serious relapse.” So while her Lyme disease may be “manageable,” she still has to be hyper aware of anything that could threaten her immune system.
The WNBA obviously does not value the concerns of someone who is immunocompromised. Someone who has Lyme disease.
While we may not understand everything about the politics of basketball, we understand the slap in the face it is when your employer basically tells you that your life is worth the risk if it means they can make an extra dollar.
The WNBA Overturns its Decision
Following Delle Donne’s push back, the league decided to accept Delle Donne’s request for medical clearance, and she will still get paid this season.
So some might write this off and say, “The League overturned their decision.” All better?
No. We don’t think you can just put a band-aid on this and move on.
What about the other players who have no option but to play despite their genuine concerns for their immune systems? Is it okay for people in authority to dismiss when people say they feel unsafe? How about how they completely ignored Delle Donne’s doctor’s medical advice because it had to do with Lyme disease? What would the league have done if Delle Donne hadn’t handled things so publicly?
Essentially, there is a lot that many will overlook about this situation, as everyone moves on and goes back to normal. Those of us with Lyme disease will not go back to “normal” after this decision, after COVID, after the news blows over.
And it gets worse.
As we have tried to keep up with the story, we recognized that coverage completely stopped. Maybe we’re being a little overdramatic, but…what will it take for people to take chronic Lyme disease seriously? Big celebrities, athletes, and hundreds of thousands suffering and apparently it just isn’t “newsworthy” enough.
How this Affects the Lyme disease Community
As if we haven’t already been told a thousand times that chronic Lyme isn’t real, that we’re making it up, that we’re lazy, that we should just try this, that it’s in our heads, that we’re being dramatic, the list never ends! This story is triggering to the say the least.
Let’s back up for a moment, though. In the 2018 WNBA semifinals, Delle Donne played through a terrible knee injury for 5 games. She knew this came with the job of a professional athlete, but our point is this: this woman is tough and a fighter. Has she not proven that? So when a respected athlete voices their limits and it still isn’t listened to, what does that mean for the rest of us? Those who cannot necessarily “prove” their physical strength? They sure as hell aren’t going to be taken seriously if Delle Donne isn’t.
This story tells us that Lyme disease is not valued, believed or taken seriously even when you have the money, clout, and doctor’s consent. And trust us when we say that most of us don’t have any of that.
It’s a reflection of how society truly feels about those with chronic illness. And while we cannot change that alone, we aren’t going to sit here and not speak up about how not okay all of this is.
If we cannot find a way for those in power to be taken seriously, there is far less chance for the rest of the Lyme community to get the attention, funding, and respect we are so badly in need of.
On the positive side? Delle Donne’s story just adds to our defense and may give us the opportunity to ONE DAY get it through people’s heads that chronic Lyme is real. That their favorite celebrities, athletes, and friends are not making this up and that they need to be allies with the Lyme community. It seems like an impossible feat now, but in the year 2020? We think anything is possible.