CHICAGO – LaTasha Unseld was nervous, but she wanted to read the 5,283 words she’d written. She would not let her headache stop her. After all, as she told the court, her headache was because of her ex.
Doctors told Unseld she was one punch away from severe brain trauma after her ex-partner, Demetrius Singleton, choked and beat her in 2014.
Recent research on head trauma has mainly focused on NFL athletes, whose brains have been shown to be damaged after years of hits to the head, and injured veterans. But survivors of domestic violence often experience blows to the head, as well. Chicago researchers hope to build on the research on football players in a way that can help survivors of domestic abuse.
“Everything we hear in the media is more focused on men,” said Dorothy Kozlowski. “But, in reality, women get traumatic brain injuries just as much as men do.”
Kozlowski, a professor of biology and director of the neuroscience program at DePaul University, recently received a grant from the school’s University Research Council to study repeat concussions. She hopes to find out whether people hit in the head multiple times, especially women in abusive relationships, might be more susceptible to diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or Alzheimer’s.
“They got hit to the head by a fist, by a chair, by whatever it was, by being thrown against the wall,” said Kozlowski. “Any kind of hit to the head that they would receive is similar to what someone on a football field could receive.”
She estimates that between 60 and 90 percent of domestic violence victims have experienced at least one head injury. A 2016 study estimated that 23 million U.S. women could be living with a brain injury from interpersonal violence.
Dr. Darryl Kaelin, medical director of the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Ky., has worked in brain injury rehabilitation for decades. He recalled a client whose boyfriend hit her in the head with a sledgehammer that left her with cognitive deficits and dependent on her mother at age 30.
Kaelin said, “when you’ve had a change in your mental status or a change in the way your brain functions, even for a temporary amount of time, that is an injury to your brain.”
Researchers say symptoms of brain injury can make it more difficult for a woman to care for herself or her children, which can make her less likely to leave her abuser.
Unseld, who used to pride herself on remembering a slew of appointments, now has to rely on phone reminders. She said she forgets what her daughter tells her minutes later. She hopes that speaking out will help other women. “You never get over it,” she said. “You get through it.”