Katherine Snedaker thinks she suffered her first concussion more than 30 years ago, though she can't be certain. It might have happened during one of several car accidents, or it might have occurred while she was playing field hockey. All she knows for sure is that she's had numerous concussions since then, and that she's increasingly susceptible to these traumatic brain injuries, which in some people can cause nausea, memory loss, and blinding headaches for long periods of time.
If she were a man -- say, an NFL football player -- her story might be more widely known. But even though females reportedly suffer concussions at a higher rate than males when playing the same sports, the focus of this issue has largely been on men and the consequences of their concussions -- which might include depression, substance abuse and suicide.
"It's taboo to talk about female concussions," said Snedaker, 46, who said she has suffered more than a dozen concussions. "It's not sexy, it's not entertaining."
With her new website, pinkconcussions.com, Snedaker is primarily concerned with making the topic educational. Earlier she launched SportsCapp.com to build awareness about concussions among recreation teams, schools and leagues.
Snedaker, a Norwalk resident who coaches youth sports and teaches extensively about concussions, was watching the recent Super Bowl pregame show when commentator Jim Nantz said, "Research shows that at the college level, a women's soccer player is two-and-half times more likely to suffer a concussion than a college football player. I don't hear anyone saying right now, `Should we pull our daughter in these soccer programs?'"
Nantz was cherry picking statistics and broadcasting them on a highly rated television program. Snedaker and others were incensed. She responded by creating pinkconcussions.com, which claims to be the first website to focus on female concussions.
"His comment just sparked the interest," Snedaker said. "I wasn't sure when I created it whether it would really be a robust thing or whether people would laugh at me, but I figured the topic should be teased out."
Not least because Snedaker is still suffering concussions -- and far away from the field of play.
She was on the train to Boston last November to listen to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speak at the Harvard School of Public Health about the NFL's ongoing crisis about players with concussion-related issues -- most prominently, the suicide last May of former All Pro linebacker Junior Seau -- when she bumped her head getting out of her seat. She soon had tears in her eyes and felt nauseated.
But Snedaker wasn't about to miss this opportunity to meet with Goodell to discuss a topic that has affected her life so personally.
"The NFL had asked me three or four times to do stuff with them, so I was going to go with a bloodied arm if I had to," she said.
Goodell explained some of the steps the league is taking to prevent and report concussions, including the use of stadium spotters who can radio to on-field medical personnel about possible head injuries. The league is engulfed in a class action lawsuit brought by more than 4,000 former players who claim the NFL misled them about the dangers of playing the game. The league's use of spotters, and its $100 million study to investigate the long-term effects of concussions, can be attributed in part to the league's desire to protect its legal and financial self-interests, Snedaker said. But doing something is better than doing nothing, she said.
"The NFL is the only one giving out money. And thank god they are, because who else is? When was the last time soccer gave $100 million to study concussions?"
Coincidentally, it was a soccer incident involving one of her three sons that spurred Snedaker to educate herself extensively about concussions, which are often misdiagnosed. This son, who is now 13, was in sixth grade when he was kicked in the head by a soccer ball at recess. The resulting concussion and its aftereffects caused him to miss several months of school, and his situation flew in the face of what many people understand about concussions.
Most people tend to think that concussions occur during organized sports, but Snedaker said studies show that more than 80 percent of youth concussions take place off the field -- perhaps at recess or just fooling around with friends. Moreover, incidents of lost consciousness only account for 10 percent of concussions.
Among the reasons why girls might have a higher rate of reported concussions is that females might be more honest and less macho about how their bodies are feeling. Moreover, females tend to take longer to recover from the symptoms of concussions, leading to a prolonged awareness that something is amiss beyond "getting their bell rung."
Right now the studies are lacking, with most of the focus on football. She said organizations such as US Lacrosse have done a good job educating people about concussions, but they don't have nearly the resources as the NFL. Nor does lacrosse command the same amount of interest as football, the country's most popular sport.
"I'd like to have a good, broad study done. All the money is funneled into football."
Snedaker has agreed to donate her brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, where males account for 95 percent of donations, she said. Last Monday she traveled to Washington, D.C., and participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council to examine the multi-faceted issue of concussions.
Snedaker is certified by the state in module 15, which trains people to recognize the symptoms of concussions. When she is at a lacrosse or soccer match and she observes what she believes to be a concussion, she contacts a medical doctor.
Snedaker was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she said she was amazed at the outpouring of support. She said she has not yet begun chemotherapy, and that she has not suffered from the disease nearly as much as she's suffered from concussions.
"I almost feel guilty because I haven't suffered enough for this amount of support," she said. "But you say you have a concussion and people are like, `Really? Sure you don't have a migraine?' It just showed me there's so much love and support out there, but people just haven't been trained. What if we could take a fraction of that (breast cancer awareness) and support families dealing with concussions?"