Appleton native and concussion expert Dr. Ann McKee: 'Put your head down and work hard'
APPLETON - Growing up with two older brothers taught Dr. Ann McKee to be tough.
"They taught me to fight back from the very beginning, even when you're outnumbered and undersized," she said with a smile.
The tenacity and values instilled during her childhood in Appleton have motivated her. A graduate of Appleton East High School, McKee is a neuropathologist at Boston University and one of the nation's foremost researchers on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Also known as CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a neurodegenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive head trauma.
McKee spoke at the 17th annual Women's Fund Luncheon on Thursday at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, and her message for women was simple: work hard and tune out the haters.
"Don't spend your resources dealing with those people. Keep your eyes straight ahead. Put your head down and work hard, and when they say bad things to you, you just work harder.
"And when you work really, really hard for as much and as long as you can, and when you're successful, you will win the battle," she said.
Like most Wisconsin children, McKee grew up watching the Green Bay Packers and has always loved football. She learned to play the sport at a young age and rooted for her brothers when they played at Lawrence University.
But that doesn't change what her research has found: Contact sports such as football put players at a high risk of developing CTE. Veterans are also impacted by it.
"This is something we clearly have to take seriously. It's not good news. It's not something that we want — we love football the way it is and nobody wants to change it — but I think what we have to remember is we need to protect the players," she said before the keynote address.
"... It's not just contact sport athletes, it's military veterans. They're exposed to trauma all the time … and we find the same changes in military veterans that we find in the athletes."
For 20 years, McKee studied Alzheimer's disease and aging. Nearly a decade ago, her focus shifted.
Chris Nowinski, who played linebacker at Harvard University and went on to a career in professional wrestling, was advised to leave the WWE because he sustained multiple concussions. At that point, Nowinski asked McKee if she wanted to study the brains of football players.
The first two former NFL players she studied, Tom McHale and John Grimsley, died of accidental deaths at the age of 45. Their wives noticed behavior changes when the men were around 40, and decided to have McKee study their husbands' brains after they died.
"When I looked at those brains in those 45-year-olds, even though they were some 30 years younger than (boxer) Paul Pender, I saw the ravages of this same disease that I had seen in the boxer, that extraordinary, peculiar disease called CTE," she said. "That's where it took off for me — to see this in such young people."
Since then, McKee has studied the long-term impacts of brain injuries on contact sport athletes and military veterans.
Her team's most recent work, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July, made national headlines. Researchers examined the brains of 202 former football players and found 177 had CTE. Among those studied were 111 former NFL players, 110 of whom had CTE.
While the findings sent shock waves through the sports world, it was only one breakthrough among many her team has uncovered in nearly a decade of research.
The researchers have published more than 60 papers on CTE, established the world's largest brain bank, studied more than 70 percent of all the known cases of CTE, laid out the diagnostic criteria for the disease and discovered the link between CTE and ALS.
Despite what her research shows, McKee said some men in the NFL have marginalized her and attempted to silence her. She even had to defend herself from others in the medical field who tried to claim her work as their own.
She didn't let any of them stop her. She was used to making her voice heard as one of few women at the time in medical school at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio.
The women at her side have played significant roles in her success. The female doctors who taught her and the women she works with now inspire her.
McKee hopes researchers will continue to make breakthroughs, including figuring how to diagnose CTE before death.
"This disease takes an emotional toll, maybe a little bit on me, but it's on the families — the families that endure the anguish of this disorder and see it in their loved ones, their spouses, their parents and their children," she said. "This is a very, very difficult disease and it affects young people … they're in their 20s and their 30s, and they're being cut down way before they should be."
About the Women's Fund
The Women's Fund empowers women and girls in the Fox Valley through grants, advocacy and education. The organization envisions a world where women and girls live in safety, meet their basic needs for living, are economically secure, have opportunities to pursue their dreams and are inspired to better themselves through learning, leadership and volunteering. In 20 years of grantmaking, the Women's Fund has distributed $1.2 million to 204 local programs. For more information, visit womensfundfvr.org.