As It Happens

Why Canadian rugby player Jen Kish is donating her brain to science

There are 44 brains from deceased male athletes used for research at the Canadian Concussion Centre. Now, four elite female athletes are planning to donate theirs.

Kish among 1st Canadian female athletes to pledge brain to the Canadian Concussion Centre

Injuries may have hastened her retirement, but Canada's Jen Kish, left, will be remembered as one of the most dominant women's rugby sevens players. (Matt King/Getty Images)

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Jen Kish has dominated the Canadian women's rugby sevens scene for the past 13 years. Now she's announced that she will continue to contribute to the sport after her death — by donating her brain for concussion research.

Kish, an Olympic bronze medallist, is one of the first female Canadian athletes to pledge her brain to the Canadian Concussion Centre. The Toronto research centre has studied the brains of 44 professional athletes, but all the donors were male.

Kish is joined by two-time Olympic champion hockey player Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Olympic gold medallist skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner and hockey pioneer Fran Rider.

The Edmonton native was one of the driving forces behind Canada's bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Kish, 29, announced her early retirement on April 30 after being plagued by injuries.

The former captain spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of that conversation. 

Jen, what has made you decide to donate your brain to science?

I want a better future for the next generation. I want to make sport safer and I want more information on the female brain because right now we lack it.

Canada wins the bronze medal versus Great Britain in the women's rugby sevens event at the Rio Olympics on August 8, 2016. (Kevin Light/CBC)

How many concussions have you had while you played rugby?

I had five.

That's a lot of concussions.

Those are the ones that were diagnosed.

There wasn't a lot of awareness on concussions. The sad part is you get your bell rung and, if you can still see straight and run, they're going to send you back in there.

Over the years it has developed. Now there's a lot more safety around it.

What side effects have you had?

Memory loss.

It's sad because I'm not even 30 yet and I'm dealing with stuff like this. I'm fearful for what my memory will be like when I'm 60.

So you're 29 and you're having these symptoms. And what does your doctor say about them?  

Nothing much. If you go see a doctor, you know their advice is always going to be, "You need to stop playing."

As an athlete, you're not really focused on that. You're focused on, you know, your goal in that moment, which could be going to the Olympics or going to a World Cup or a pinnacle in your sport.

It's not until you get out of the sport that you start questioning ... your future and what that looks like.

Kish says she has been diagnosed with five concussions, but she believes she has suffered more. She now struggled with memory loss. (Canadian Press)

I can't image what it is to have those kind of injuries. What drives athletes to do that?

I think what drives athletes is their goal to achieve at the highest level of sport.

But I think with more research around injuries, especially around concussions, I think you can make sport a lot safer.

So that when you retire from sport, your longevity of your body and mind are in a better state than they would be if there were less information on it.   

[The Canadian Concussion Centre's director] says already he believes that women suffer at higher rates from concussions than male athletes do. Do you think that's the case?

I don't know. I'm not a researcher. I'm certainly not a doctor. I'm an athlete.  

My question is why has it taken so long to get female brain donors?  

As females, we're still trying to find our place in sport, unfortunately. But we've been playing sport for a very long time. 

Former Olympian Jen Kish, pictured at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, has agreed to donate her brain for concussion research. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Knowing what we're beginning to learn, what you have gone through, would you discourage parents, would you discourage a girl, from going into sports? Knowing that it could have long term consequences for her?

No. That's one little aspect of sport. And it's a negative side of sport.

But what sport brings you far outweigh that. And sport is much safer now because of all the concussion research that has been done and all the awareness around it.

I'm confident now that you're going to have that medical staff and the coaching staff to pull you immediately when it happens and put you on the right path to return to sport safely.

So do you think that if you were starting out now, that you wouldn't be in the state you're in now at the age of 29?


Written by Sarah Jackson with files from CBC Sports. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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