It was 2008 and basketball phenom Elena Delle Donne, now the star forward and reigning MVP of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, was entering her sophomore year at the University of Delaware. She was hoping to build on the success of her freshman season when she averaged close to 27 points a game and was named player of the year for the Colonial Athletic Association. But something just wasn’t right. Delle Donne was constantly fatigued and complained of severe headaches and pain in her limbs. At times, she could barely lift her arms, causing her to miss 12 straight games at the start of the season. She lost close to 35 pounds and took to bed for long stretches.
At first, doctors told her she might be suffering from depression. (In what some believed was a crisis of confidence, Delle Donne had taken a gap year between high school and college — spurning a scholarship offer from legendary University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma — so questions still lingered about her commitment to basketball.) But Delle Donne knew that her ailments weren’t mental. “I was withering away, and nobody was giving me answers,” she says.
After months of debilitating discomfort, doctors finally discovered the reasons for her pain and suffering. She had Lyme disease, an infection caused by the bacteria transmitted through bites by deer ticks. Though she’s not entirely sure when or where she became infected, Delle Donne believes she may have been bitten somewhere on her parents’ 35-acre farm outside of Wilmington, Delaware.
With a correct diagnosis and the help of a Lyme disease specialist, she rebounded — literally and figuratively — returning to her freshman-year form in her junior season and leading the nation in scoring with an average of 28 points per game. But she wasn’t rid of Lyme disease altogether. Her symptoms returned senior year and again in 2014 when she was forced to miss half of the Sky’s 34-game season due to Lyme disease-related flare-ups. “I’ll be feeling fine and literally the next day feel awful,” she says.
The realization that Lyme disease’s lingering and incapacitating effects would be a constant in her life compelled Delle Donne to become an advocate for Lyme disease awareness. She has taken to the stump as the disease’s most high-profile spokeswoman. Yet even with the visibility of this WNBA MVP and Olympian, few people — not even many doctors — know much about the disease. It is an information void Della Donne has committed to fill.
“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 told The Daily Herald. “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?”
Summer is the prime season for contracting Lyme disease. It’s estimated that nearly 300,000 people are infected with it each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Still, it remains something of a mystery. In fact, the disease is so difficult to detect (largely because its symptoms mimic so many other afflictions) that the number of people who are infected each year may even be higher. Because Lyme disease can affect the brain, nervous system, muscles, joints and heart, it is frequently misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis or, as was the case with Delle Donne, depression.
Lyme disease is becoming more common in the Chicago area because of the proliferation of new hiking paths, nature walks and forest preserve trails that provide deer ticks with new places to thrive and unsuspecting victims to infect, according to Mike Adam, a biologist at the Lake County Health Department. About 208 cases of Lyme disease have been reported in the Chicago area since 2013, but more than half of those were reported in 2016. Adam says the warmer weather Illinois has been experiencing year-round — even in the winter — is contributing to the surge of the disease.
There is no cure for Lyme disease. It is controlled with antibiotics, which are effective for about 80 percent of the people who are infected. If left untreated or if it goes misdiagnosed for a prolonged period, Lyme disease sufferers can develop chronic arthritis and a range of nervous system disorders, such as a stiff neck, headaches, temporary paralysis of muscles in the face, numbness, pain and weakness in the limbs and poor motor coordination. Once Lyme disease is contracted, the symptoms can persist sporadically for years.
Though the disease is not deadly, research suggests a high likelihood that expectant mothers can pass Lyme disease to their unborn children. And in rare cases, this in-utero transmission can result in a stillbirth.
What is a “deer tick” anyway?
The scientific name of Lyme disease’s dreaded carrier is Ixodes scapularis. It is also referred to as the “black-legged” tick. In its adult form, it is about an eighth of an inch long with black legs and brown to bright-red bodies. Deer ticks do not fly or jump. They just hang around until someone brushes against a plant, a blade of grass or bush that they are living on.
Deer ticks are so small that their bite is painless and unnoticeable. Once the tick is attached to the body, it has the potential to feed on a human for several days if it goes unbothered. The longer it stays attached to the skin, the greater the likelihood that it will transmit Lyme disease into the bloodstream. But even if the contact isn’t prolonged, a bite and subsequent infection are possible.
Preventing Lyme disease
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to stay away from grassy or wooded areas. If that isn’t possible, you should cover up. When you’re on hikes in lush or verdant areas, always wear shoes, long pants tucked into your socks, a hat and a long-sleeved shirt. Stick to mapped out trails and avoid trekking through tall grass. When you do go on hikes in grassy areas, use an insect repellent that contains DEET. You should also tick-proof your yard: Clear dead leaves and grass from beneath bushes and shrubs. Keep your grass cut as short as possible. Finally, check for ticks after being outside for long periods of time. If you notice a small beetle-like insect on your lower body there is a high chance it is a tick — remove it with tweezers and get checked immediately.
Since contracting Lyme disease in college, Elena Delle Donne has learned to cope with its unpredictable flare-ups. It has taught her to “live in the moment” and be more cognizant of the signs that an episode is looming. She maintains an almost gluten-free diet, and has cut down on foods that could cause inflammation like red meat, dairy, sugar and caffeine.
“Staying healthy is like a second job for me,” she told Sports Illustrated. “It’s very tough being a professional athlete and having a chronic illness. Fortunately, I have great doctors and an incredible support staff that has helped me along the way.”
Still, she is committed to heightening awareness about the disease so that others with less support can learn to manage their symptoms as well. As the first national ambassador for the Lyme Research Alliance, she has appeared at events around the country and in public service announcements. In 2014, LRA gave her its Star Light Award for her efforts.
“While my battle with Lyme has been very public, there are so many people whose battles are not,” she says. “And through LRA, my ability to be a voice for them is amplified.”
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