British Columbia

Olympic ski champ scores first by donating brain to concussion research

When a small fender bender triggered a crippling response, Kerrin Lee-Gartner knew she had crossed a threshold in her battle with post-concussion syndrome.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner still battles the effects of concussion 25 years after the end of her racing career

Kerrin Lee-Gartner is one of four prominent female Canadian athletes who have pledged their brain to the Canadian Concussion Centre in hopes of advancing research into concussion in women. (F. Scott Grant/Canadian Olympic Committee/Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

When a minor car accident triggered a crippling response, Kerrin Lee-Gartner knew she had crossed a terrible threshold in her battle with post concussion-syndrome.

"It really opened my eyes to the depression side of it. I was borderline there, hiding within the walls of my home," said the Olympic champion skier from Rossland, B.C.

"I shut off socially. I said 'no' to going out because I couldn't handle the noise and people and stimulus. Even walking down the street was hard for me."

Unfortunately, all the problems experienced by Lee-Gartner  — the migraines, vision problems and vertigo — are not uncommon in athletes who have sustained multiple concussions.

But when it comes to the unique challenges faced by female athletes with post-concussion syndrome, not a lot is known.

Nearly all research to date has focused exclusively on male brains, which is why Lee-Gartner is joining three other prominent Canadian athletes as the first women to donate their brains to the Canadian Concussion Centre.

"Shared knowledge is power and if something that I've experienced can help someone else, then that would be a blessing," said Lee-Gartner.

'Conspicuous' lack of research on female brain

The CCC has done groundbreaking work on concussions, including proving the link between the degenerative brain disease CTE and repeated concussion. (CTE is only detectable post mortem.)

Lee-Gartner in hospital after knee reconstruction surgery. In all the injuries she suffered, she was never diagnosed with a concussions. ' the time the concern was more about how long until I got back on skis,' she said. (Kerrin Lee-Gartner)

But each of the 44 brains they've studied so far have been male. 

"The lack of research for girls and women is conspicuous. We're trying to rectify that.," said Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon and director of the CCC.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner on the Olympic Super G course in Meribel, France, in 1992. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Tator is almost certain CTE will be present in female brains once they get a chance to look.

"I think we're going to find it. There haven't been cases in women so far, but I think it's likely," he said. "But that's why we need to do the research."

'You can't fall at 120 km/h ... without hurting your brain'

Hockey players Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Fran Rider, along with rugby's Jen Kish, have also pledged their brains to the project. The common denominator between the four women is that they all suffered multiple concussions in their careers. 

Lee-Gartner can't say how many concussions she's had because in her ski racing heyday, little was understood about the issue.

Dr. Charles Tator (2nd from right) was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame last year for his groundbreaking research in sport concussions. Also inducted were (left to right) Simon Whitfield, Lanny McDonald, Cindy Klassen, Carol Huynh and Mike Weir. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press/File)

"You can't fall at 120 km/h ... without hurting your brain. But they were never diagnosed, and at the time, the concern was more about knee reconstruction and how long until I got back on skis."

Research has shown that women suffer concussion at a higher rate than men and that they take longer to recover.

Effects of concussion are now also understood to be cumulative, meaning each subsequent concussion can be triggered more easily, often resulting in increasingly severe symptoms.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner is a CBC Sports alpine skiing analyst. (CBC)

That's why that little fender bender 18 months ago was so debilitating for Lee-Gartner. Fortunately, she's feeling better and has been able to manage most of her symptoms with the help of a Calgary doctor.

The one minor regret she has in pledging her brain to science is that she won't be around to learn about what the researchers find.  

"I would really love to know what's going on in there," she laughed.