Delle Donne opens up about battling Lyme disease

There was a time, not too long ago, when 24-year-old Elena Delle Donne thought she was dying.

We're talking about the same Elena Delle Donne who is the Chicago Sky's leading scorer (22.3 ppg), was named the WNBA's rookie of the year last summer, and is widely regarded as one of the best young women's basketball players in the world.

The 6-foot-5 forward felt so tired and sick she could barely get out of bed or lift her arms above her head long enough to change clothes. She had horrible migraine headaches.

"I said to my parents, 'Check me into a hospital. There's something terribly wrong with me and I don't know what's going on,'" Delle Donne said. "So many doctors would see me and run their tests and say, 'You're fine. You're a healthy girl. There's something wrong with you mentally. You're depressed.' I was like, 'I am not depressed. There's nothing wrong with me (mentally). I'm sick.'

"I thought basketball was over. I even thought that I wasn't going to be able to graduate college because I was too tired to even get up and go to class."

Delle Donne has Lyme disease. She's had it since the summer after her senior year in high school in 2008 when she was bitten by an infected tick while on her family's property in Delaware.

The consensus Naismith National High School Basketball Player of the Year took medications immediately and was perfectly fine for two full years until, unbeknown to her, the disease resurfaced with a vengeance in 2010 while she was a sophomore at Delaware. Delle Donne missed 12 games for the Blue Hens during the 2010-11 season, but it wasn't until she found a Lyme specialist that she realized the health problems she was experiencing were caused by a flare-up of her Lyme disease, which does not have a cure but can be controlled with medications.

Delle Donne has been having more flare-ups lately, and that hasn't been good for the Sky. Heading into Friday's game at Allstate Arena against Indiana, Delle Donne had missed three straight games. The last time she had played was June 7 at Atlanta. The Sky, which started 5-1 and is now 6-5, lost two of its three games without Delle Donne.

Each time Delle Donne has a serious flare-up, the last of which occurred at the beginning of her senior season at Delaware, her doctors must adjust the elaborate cocktail of medications she takes. It can take time to get everything just so, which is why Delle Donne hasn't been played recently.

"It's just all a guessing game on the medications and what I need," Delle Donne said. "There's no scientific cure, there's no answer. It's just all guessing, and that's hard."

Even more difficult is the unpredictability of Lyme disease. Delle Donne began the WNBA season feeling stronger, fitter and healthier than ever. She gained 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason through hard training.

But lately, she's felt weaker and vulnerable.

"That (the unpredictability) is the worst part," Delle Donne said. "I'll be feeling fine and literally the next day wake up and feel awful. It's not fun. It's actually pretty scary, but it kind of teaches you to live in the moment and enjoy your time on the court, because you never know when that will be taken away from you. It just kind of lets me live in the present."

Delle Donne, who is noticeably anxious and impatient as she watches games in street clothes from the bench, desperately wants to play again.

But she knows how important it is to be medicated properly. Her life, and her career, depends on it. So she waits.

In the meantime, Delle Donne does whatever she can to get the word out about Lyme disease. Usually private and guarded, she now speaks freely about her condition.

"At the beginning, I struggled a little bit with sharing that I have Lyme disease and that I was ill, especially because when you're a professional athlete you need to seem healthy and that you're going to be able to contribute to a team," Delle Donne said. "But I thought to myself that if someone else is experiencing what I've experienced and they hear my story and I can help them, that's great and far more important to me.

"There are a lot of people who are struggling (with Lyme disease) far worse than I am. People with it are bedridden or have lost their memory or have heart problems. It's just a terrible, terrible disease."

In April, Delle Donne received the Star Light Award from the Lyme Research Alliance for helping to educate Americans about Lyme disease, which is diagnosed in 300,000 people every year.

"I speak out about it and try to tell my story and be open with it, even with the media, just so people know what's going on," Delle Donne said. "We need to find a test that will diagnose people correctly, and we need a cure. There have been other illnesses out there that have been cured - why can't Lyme disease be the next?"

• Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Chicago Sky since its inception in 2006 and is a sideline reporter for Sky television broadcasts. Contact her at

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