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Elena Delle Donne Details Lyme Disease Condition After Opt-Out Request is Denied: 'It Never Leaves Me'

Washington Mystics All-Star and two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne opened up about her health condition in an interview with Sports Illustrated just two days after league doctors denied her request to opt out of the 2020 season.

In an essay on the Players' Tribune Wednesday, Delle Donne revealed that she takes 64 pills per day to keep her Lyme disease under control. She has dealt with the condition for 12 years and noted that taking those pills helps keep her "healthy enough to do my job and earn the paycheck that supports my family." 

In an interview with SI, Delle Donne said doctors continue to disagree whether Lyme disease can be a chronic condition.

"It was just kind of another rude awakening that in all of these years where I kind of thought we were headed in a new direction where more people were understanding Lyme, it's kind of like back to square one," Delle Donne told SI. "I've got to do a lot more. I have to raise so much more awareness so hopefully one day a person is not in this position that I am in, where I'm trying to get people to believe me about my battle with this awful disease." 

According to Delle Donne, her personal Lyme doctor has stated that the Mystics star's "immunocompromised" condition leaves her at high risk to contract COVID-19 and recommended she sit out of the WNBA's shortened season. Delle Donne submitted reports from her personal and team physicians to the WNBA's panel of doctors to determine if she could get a health exemption. The Mystics announced on Wednesday that Delle Donne will be paid her full salary for 2020 even if she does not play.

In response, the panel denied Delle Donne's request and did not provide details as to how it came to its decision besides saying she was not considered "high-risk." Delle Donne cannot counter the ruling as she waived her right to appeal upon applying for the exemption. 

Delle Donne said she was shocked by the ruling and detailed how it is a constant battle to inform others of Lyme disease and how it impacts those who deal with it on a daily basis.

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"The toughest part of this disease is when I'm not in the middle of a relapse, you can't really see it," Delle Donne said to SI. "In a relapse, you'll see it. You'll see the black circles under my eyes, you'll see the weight loss and everything I'm going through. But it's a daily battle, it's never over, it never leaves me.

"It's tough to have a disease where you feel sick, you feel tired, you feel flu symptoms, and then you also have to fight to get people to believe that you are sick. It just adds a whole other layer of exhaustion to all of this."

While she has been in communication with the Mystics, Delle Donne said she has not yet made a decision on whether or not she will participate, writing, "I’m still thinking very carefully and weighing my options." She told SI that she will discuss the decision with her wife, weighing both health and financial impacts. Delle Donne says she understands the privilege of having the decision to be paid or not, but may end up having to sacrifice her paycheck for her health.

"I'm very worried, I'm scared," Delle Donne told SI about the threat of COVID-19. "All of the unknowns of COVID, it terrifies me because there are still all those unknowns of Lyme disease that I still fight to this day and don't have all the answers and have tried so many different treatments, and there isn't a cure. So to add COVID into this picture is frightening and it's something I won't take lightly because unfortunately, my health hasn't been great and I really have to think it through."

Delle Donne said she recognizes the work the league has put into making the "bubble" safe in Bradenton, Fla., but hopes that the health exemption process will be fixed in future circumstances.

"Hopefully I'm the only case this flaw has occurred with," Delle Donne told SI. "I pray to God that the other players who have gone through this process get a better outcome ... Hopefully, they'll look back at this process and change it or realize that it wasn't the best for the players."

Delle Donne, 30, was named WNBA MVP last season after leading the Mystics to the team's first championship in franchise history while dealing with a back injury. The WNBA is set to begin its season on July 25 with a shortened 22-game regular-season schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.