Academics and Research / Magazine

Brain Power

“If you asked 10 people on the street about it, each one would have a story about brain injuries or strokes or something related,” Kim Gorgens says. “And the people in the field are amazing. They’re dedicated, good people.” Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong

It’s a sunny, cool day in late March 2011, and Kim Gorgens has good reason to be smiling. The psychologist and clinical associate professor in DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology has just scored a major victory in the fight against brain injuries among high school athletes.

On March 30, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law the Jake Snakenberg Youth Concussion Act, legislation that will help prevent concussions among school-aged kids. Gorgens spent the better part of two years working with physicians, nurses, school officials and leaders of several Colorado organizations to draft the position paper that became Senate Bill 11-040. Colorado Sen. Nancy Spence submitted the bill to the state Legislature on Jan. 14.

“It feels great to see it pass,” Gorgens says. “I feel like we did it right. We took our time and involved all the stakeholders.”

Snakenberg was a high school freshman football player in Colorado who died during a game in 2004. Doctors believe Snakenberg suffered an undiagnosed concussion in the previous week’s game and had not fully recovered before returning to the field, subjecting his brain to further injury.

The Snakenberg Act requires that coaches receive education on How to recognize a concussion, that players be removed from the game if a concussion is suspected, and that student-athletes be cleared by a medical professional before returning to play.

“Having this [bill] pass means so much to our family. To have something so positive to protect so many kids, it truly does add some purpose to what happened to Jake,” says his mother, Kelli Jantz, who’s a nurse at a Denver-area hospital. “Jake was an amazing, caring young man with a big heart who looked out for the underdog. He looked out for other people, and this would make him proud. He would think it was the right thing.”


Injury expert

It turns out Gorgens was a perfect choice to help the group draft the legislation. After earning her doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1998, she started focusing on brain injury rehabilitation and has since become a national expert on traumatic brain injury. She performs national outreach, education and policy work on brain injury and its resulting disability. She also offers consulting and supervision services on brain injuries for clinics along the Front Range, and she has a small clinical practice where she offers individual and family counseling related to traumatic brain injury.

Gorgens, who’s in her 10th year at DU, says she became interested in head injuries because of their prevalence.

“If you asked 10 people on the street about it, each one would have a story about brain injuries or strokes or something related,” Gorgens says. “And the people in the field are amazing. They’re dedicated, good people.”

It appears some in the field are equally smitten with Gorgens.

“She’s filled with intelligence, leadership and a sense of humor, and she’s been an effective DU ambassador for traumatic brain injury,” says Kenny Hosack, director of provider relations at Craig Hospital, who worked with Gorgens on the concussion bill. “Her contribution to the field has been enormous.”

That contribution is echoing far beyond Colorado’s borders. Gorgens is now working on research at the Denver-area Veterans Administration hospital in hopes of improving the way psychologists measure soldiers’ cognition before and after battle. This summer she presented her work at a federal symposium in Washington, D.C.

Gorgens’ research has ended up in many settings: professional journals, encyclopedias, articles and public forums. Last year she spoke about concussions at TEDxDU, an independent event modeled on the renowned TED brand of dialogue.

Brain injury is just one of Gorgens’ many areas of expertise. By her own admission, she’s interested in a lot of things. A quick scan of her curriculum vitae proves it: She’s researched and studied everything from serial rape, domestic violence and interpersonal aggression to emergency medicine, animal care and brain injury. “The door is wide open,” she says. “I’m a follow-your-nose type. I don’t stick around long enough on one topic to get tired of it.”

Her work has long been aligned closely with news headlines. Amid a flood of military suicides last year, she worked with Fort Carson soldiers on suicide prevention and stress management. And when the Chilean miners were trapped, CNN got her thoughts on the psychological issues they were facing.


A career takes shape

Gorgens’ career started taking shape during graduate school at Southern Illinois, where she studied psychology by day and worked part-time as a paramedic by night.

“Psychology didn’t gel for me until I worked as a paramedic,” she says. “I’d seen clients in an outpatient setting and in clinics, but being a paramedic turned the light bulb on with the immediacy of the moment and being able to offer something that could really help. I was doing psychological triage and relaxation training in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

And in class, her newfound uses for psychology only crystallized her future. “The school had one of the world’s best rehab programs with amazing faculty who helped shape my way of thinking and taught me to see the pragmatic part of my education,” she says. “The degree was psychology, but I saw myself as a scientist, a researcher and a critical thinker. I began to think, ‘This is where it’s at for me.’”

Peter Buirski, dean of DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, says Gorgens’ students describe her as a “rock star.”

“She conveys sophisticated content with energy and excitement, and her enthusiasm is contagious,” Buirski says. “She does innovative work in traumatic brain injury, she’s a natural leader, and people want to work with her, not just for her ideas, but also because she’s so personally engaging, accepting and welcoming.”

Of all the work she’s done, Gorgens says she’s most proud of a paper she co-wrote with fellow professional psychology faculty member Jenny Cornish highlighting the need for disability sensitivity training for professionals.

“There’s some data that says something like 70 percent of faculty aren’t aware of laws around disability accommodations in the classroom,” Gorgens says. “Wait, what? How did we miss that? That’s my soapbox, if I have a soapbox. We have to get it.”

“Getting it” to Gorgens is not only knowing how to work with and communicate with those who have disabilities, but also appreciating their differences.

“We often view them through an impairment lens and say, ‘Oh, you have a disability,’ and we miss the richness of the ways they identify themselves,” she says, offering the example of the hearing-impaired.

“The deaf don’t see themselves as disabled; it’s just that they communicate with a different language, and that gives their lives a real richness. It’s tragic to overlook that and not allow them to tell us who they really are,” she says. “If anyone needs to understand these issues, it’s psychologists.”

Cornish says she was struck by Gorgens’ enthusiasm for the work. “I could tell it was very meaningful for her, and it was her gift of empathy that made the paper possible,” Cornish says.

Gorgens’ empathy for the disabled comes from a very personal place: growing up outside of Boston with a father who has post-polio syndrome and a mother with a hearing impairment. Her father, Richard Gorgens, was a pioneer in assistive technology and showed her how powerful advocacy and access can be.

Family ties inform her interest in brain injuries as well. Her TEDxDU talk centered on her 9-year-old son, Vander, who plays soccer and wants to play football and learn to ride a unicycle.

When the family goes skiing, “Yes, he always wears a helmet, you bet,” she says.

As for Gorgens? You might be surprised. “Me? Well, I do ski and I do have a helmet, but I don’t always wear it. I’m like 50-50 on the slopes.”

And when she shows up without a helmet, she says, her son gives her “the look.”

“He just stares at me like I’m not wearing my skis, like I’m forgetting something really important.”

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