Response to the WNBA’s Denial of Elena Delle Donne’s Medical Exemption

It has taken me a few days to think through how I wanted to respond to this situation because truly, all I wanted to do when I first learned of the incident was scream.

For those who don’t know, the WNBA is restarting their season this month, and to combat the spread of COVID-19, the League is conducting all practices and games at the IMG Academy in Florida. In addition, all players, coaches and staff will live within the “bubble” of the Academy for the duration of the season. This is an excellent opportunity for a growing fan base to continue to watch their favorite teams, but it comes with a risk to players. While precautions are being taken, the WNBA cannot promise players that COVID will not enter the bubble and spread. Due to this, players were given the opportunity to opt-out of the season (and their salaries) if they were not granted a medical waiver by an independent panel of doctors. If a medical waiver was ruled appropriate, the player would not play, but would still receive their salary. This opportunity aims to keep compromised individuals safe from developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Elena Delle Donne is a highly decorated player and gold medalist. Last season, she competed in the finals with three herniated discs in her back, and was awarded the MVP of the League. She is also someone who has suffered from severe Lyme Disease for the last nine years. The doctor who treats her for the condition has advised her not to enter the bubble and join the season because her form of Lyme Disease puts her at a significant risk for COVID-19 complications. After submitting all of her lab work and medical records required by the WNBA, as well as a note from her doctor outlining her need for a medical exemption, the WNBA doctor panel ruled her ineligible. By doing so, they are sending a message: Lyme Disease is not serious enough. It is not worthy. Delle Donne is exaggerating her health condition.

In fact, hundreds of people responded using these exact words. Lambasting Delle Donne for making up a condition that does not exist in order to get out of work. To be able to collect her salary without lifting a finger. They said Lyme is “not that bad” and told her to “toughen up.”

Unfortunately, this is not a new reaction. People who live with Late-Stage Lyme Disease are commonly told this by family, friends, and even the doctors from whom they are asking for help. I’ve been told this. I know that some people look at me as if I should “toughen up” and recognize that my pain is “all in my head.” The hurt this causes Lyme sufferers is immense. It leads to lack of treatment options and pushes thousands to live in debilitating pain everyday without hope. It kills people. Every demeaning comment adds to the narrative that Lyme Disease is not really that bad. It keeps research from being conducted to find cures.

I’ve seen the damage this situation has done to those suffering from Lyme Disease and those who love and care for someone suffering. In an effort to advocate for my Lyme Disease community, I have decided to share some research-backed information that can help educate those who have made such comments or had similar thoughts.

First, yes, Lyme Disease is sometimes not debilitating and can be cured using Doxycycline in 2-4 weeks. This is everyone’s best cases scenario. However, the medical community has perpetuated the idea that this is the only scenario. Instead, in the last five years, new research has identified the cause of recurrent and persistent symptoms in patients after this recommended antibiotic. The simplest answer lies in the persister forms of the spirochete bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, Borrelia burgdorferi. Put simply, the bacteria changes form. It begins looking like a corkscrew and morphs into a round body, coating itself in a biofilm that helps it evade the immune system. So yes, Doxycycline will kill almost all of the initial corkscrew bacteria, but it is not strong enough to touch the persister round bodies. This is what is meant by the term chronic infection, and this phenomenon is seen in many other infections that are considered chronic in nature. The bacteria remain in the body and burrow into all tissues. This includes all organs, including the brain. Evidence now shows that multiple rounds of different antibiotics are needed to rid the body of all the bacteria, and in many cases, a combination of supplements and antibiotics on a consistent basis.

If a Lyme patient is lucky enough to get their disease to a manageable condition, they still need to supplement their immune system because it remains compromised from fighting this persistent bacteria. The bacteria destroys the immune system and depletes its ability to fight. This is why it is common for a cold to cause the recurrence of intense Lyme Disease symptoms. The body never stops. The fighting never stops. It’s everyday when we wake up to when we hit the pillow at night. It’s fatigue that feels as if each cell in your body is carrying its own backpack of bricks; it’s a fog so heavy that you can’t remember what you did three hours before; it’s headaches and migraines that are always present; it’s pain in your joints and muscles that feels as if someone left a knife in your knee; it’s panic attacks that occur as the bacteria crosses the barrier between the blood and the brain and begin to burrow.

It is why Delle Donne needed a medical waiver.

Some may wonder why a majority of the medical community does not recognize these persistent symptom-causing bacteria. The answer is long and complicated, but it boils down to the lack of answers in how to treat such a condition as well as the expense of treating it. Insurance companies do not pay for treatments for the severe form of Lyme Disease. It’s incredibly expensive because the lack of research means a lot of trial and error is required. This is an unfortunate reality because many patients are unable to afford the out-of-pocket expenses to seek out doctors who have been treating Lyme Disease their entire careers and thus, have a thorough understanding of its persistent nature. I will never forget how grateful I was when a new doctor I went to informed me that he used to believe only 4 weeks of Doxycycline was required, but in light of more research, he has shifted his perspective. He said he must look at the evidence.

The evidence shows that due to Lyme Disease’s effect on the immune system, extra precautions are required for Lyme patients during this pandemic. The evidence shows that Elena Delle Donne should have been provided a waiver for this season.

“Why Persister Cells Matter with Lyme Disease”

Thank you for taking the time to read this and understand more about the severity of Lyme Disease. Please feel free to share this with anyone who would benefit from the information. I’ve attached a few links to research I referenced. Scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to the blog for more information on Lyme Disease!

Research on the growth of persister cells in cultures of B. burgdorferi

The John Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center

Global Lyme Alliance

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