Brain Matters

art by Lydia Okumura

art by Lydia Okumura

Here's a piece I recently penned for Wilton Magazine

HEAD STRONG: One Woman's Mission to Tackle Female Brain Injury

by Laura Noble Perese

Did you know that multiple medical research studies have found that in sports, like soccer, with similar rules and equal risk of injury between females and males, the rates of concussion are higher for girls? Several more studies show that female athletes either experience or report a higher number and greater severity of symptoms related to concussions, as well as a longer duration of recovery than their male counterparts. 

Most of America didn’t know either—until the advent of PINK Concussions. 

Founded by Executive Director and Wilton native, Katherine Snedaker, PINK Concussions is the first non-profit organization in the country to focus on female brain injury, including concussions from sports, domestic violence, accidents, and military service. 

“There’s not enough research out there about women and traumatic brain injury,” says Katherine of her mission to both share and expand the research field. “No one has ever bundled what important information is out there about women and concussions, so I just knew I had to do it.” 

PINK Concussions’ ambitious mission centers around three pillars: support groups for families in concussion recovery, aggregating and sharing scientific research both online and in person through annual PINK Concussions International Summits, and cultivating brain donation pledges in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National PTSD Brain Bank to expand research on females with brain injury and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

“Concussions are serious,” says Dr. Bertrand ‘Russ’ Huber, MD, PhD Director of the PTSD Brain Bank at VA Boston Healthcare. “There is a tremendous amount we can learn from human brain donations that we simply cannot learn from studying other animals.” 

From helping with this crucial brain research, to aiding concussion victims directly, PINK Concussions is driven to advance the healing of the brain. “Katherine provided us with such amazing resources and helped us to realize we were not alone,” says Marci-Ann Schaffer, a mother whose daughter suffered a concussion while playing volleyball. 

A survivor of concussions herself (the first one in a car accident on Route 7 turning into Wilton Town Center), and in the aftermath of each of her children suffering concussions, Katherine began a journey in 2008 of researching the work of current concussion experts. From there, she founded a free online resource about concussion education and policy for youth sports teams, and served as a social worker with concussed young women. 

“I recognized early on that girls were being made invisible and getting left behind,” says Katherine of her work counseling concussed teen girls. 

According to Katherine and others, many families dealing with Post-Concussion Syndrome find that their schools are neither knowledgeable about, nor very empathetic regarding the extended setbacks and symptoms from concussion, which can extend for many months after an injury. These can include anything from daily headaches or extreme fatigue to anxiety, nervousness, and more. 

Katherine’s early work aggregating concussion research caught the attention of the National Football League and gained her a meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell to talk about best practices in educating youth about concussions. 

Not long after, Katherine was diagnosed with breast cancer. As well, her home was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Rather than giving in to adversity, Katherine instead found inspiration and motivation from her struggles. 

“When I had breast cancer, everyone was bringing me casseroles and calling to check in on me. They were all so supportive,” says Katherine. “I realized that the big difference with concussion is that it’s not typically a ‘casserole event’ in people’s lives, even though it too can be so disruptive.” 

In 2015, fueled by compassion, knowledge and grit, Katherine officially founded PINK Concussions as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to focus solely on female concussions. 

Today, just three years later, PINK Concussions helps more than 2,000 women across five different support networks, and is expanding its outreach efforts every day. The organization has so far produced four international PINK Summits in coordination with institutions like Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, the Palo Alto Healthcare System, the International Brain Injury Association, and The International Pediatric Brain Injury Society. 

Further affirming PINK Concussions’ presence in the field, Katherine was recently called upon by The National Institutes of Health to be a keynote leader at a session on traumatic brain injury in women, under the tutelage of Dr. Walter J. Koroshetz, the Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 

“Women have long been the invisible patients in brain injury,” says Katherine. “My dream is to translate the data in research papers into actionable change in clinical practice, and improve care for women across the world.” 

AdventureLaura Perese