By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - Chicago Sky head coach Pokey Chatman needs only a brief glance at Elena Delle Donne, one of the brightest stars in the WNBA, to know when the high-scoring forward is going to need a break.
"Pokey can look at me in the morning and tell how I'm doing," said Delle Donne, the league's top scorer. "And she'll know to give me more rest that day. We're on an eye-contact level at this point."
Delle Donne's fatigue and stiffness on certain days has nothing to so with the rigors of a Women's National Basketball Association season but with the lasting effects of Lyme disease.
A favorite to win the WNBA's MVP award this year, Delle Donne believes she contracted the disease, a bacterial infection often transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick, in 2008.
She says she doesn't know how she exactly how she got the disease and didn't catch it in its early stages as flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and muscle stiffness were misdiagnosed.
Delle Donne finally got the illness, which has no known cure, under control but in 2010 she said she "had a really bad relapse" and has been troubled by it ever since, causing the Delaware native to miss a chunk of last season, including the All-Star game.
She has not missed any time this season as she averages a league-best 23 points, while adding nearly 9 rebounds and 2 blocks, all career highs.
"This season I've been playing well and staying pretty healthy so people just think the disease is gone," she told Reuters. "But it's something I battle every single day."
The 26-year-old, 6-foot-5 (1.96 meter) Delle Donne said she can spend four hours a day "just doing things trying to stay healthy." After hard games or a long flight, she said she often will use a computerized massage machine that aids recovery in the legs, hips and arms.
She has to eat well, staying away from foods that could cause inflammation, and take dietary supplements.
Chatman, the Sky coach, said when she sees the "glassy look" in Delle Donne's eyes, she knows it is time to sit her down.
"Sometimes people forget that just because Lyme hasn't reared its ugly head this year, she's fine. But it's still a day-to-day process with her," Chatman said. "Fortunately, Elena treats it with the respect it deserves and tries to get out of front of any potential problems."
Delle Donne sees Pennsylvania-based nurse practitioner Rita Rhoads every week during the off-season to make sure her blood tests are satisfactory. Once the season starts, the two keep in touch via e-mails, texts and phone calls.
"Elena is a very driven person," said Rhoads, who has treated Delle Donne for the past five years. "She does everything she needs to do to stay on top of it. "She's got that Type A personality. It's not just playing basketball. She follows directions."
A former rookie of the year, Delle Donne is having her best season since entering the WNBA in 2013 out of the University of Delaware.
The playoff-bound Sky are in second place in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the New York Liberty.
Off the court, Della Donne is a spokeswoman for Lyme disease prevention and is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. She recently won the WNBA's Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for the second consecutive year.
Della Donne said she wants to educate the public about Lyme disease so no one has to go through the trauma she endured.
Two years after contracting the disease, she began to feel extreme fatigue, sleeping about 18 hours a day. She had not had Lyme symptoms in a long time and doctors were baffled as to the cause of her new problems.
"I never knew Lyme could go dormant and come back with a vengeance," she said. "I had no idea what was going on. I had doctors telling me I had mental illness. That's just so wrong."
Delle Donne said she never lets herself believe she has conquered the disease.
"I feel like I have really gotten a pretty good grip on it," she said. "But I've felt like that many times over the last five years and then had a horrible relapse. Unfortunately, you never know if it's coming back or not. You have to stay on top of it. Sometimes it feels like a second job. But I have to do it."
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Alan Crosby)