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‘María’s legacy can save other women from CTE’

María Pánfila’s story is first publicly-shared case of CTE as a result of domestic violence



The first publicly-shared case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by domestic violence is helping to shed light on the danger, as well as the need for greater awareness and research. 

María Pánfila, a mother of seven, suffered decades of abuse by her husband and, by her mid-40s, experienced memory issues and other symptoms consistent with those caused by repeated brain trauma. 

María, from California, passed away at age 69. Following a post-mortem analysis, Dr Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the Boston University CTE Center and UNITE Brain Bank, diagnosed her with severe CTE.

Her story has recently been made into an Amazon Prime documentary, to help raise awareness and save other women who are subject to domestic violence around the world. 

Research has irrefutably linked CTE with repeated head impacts, with the frequency and strength of such being at the root of the neurodegenerative disease. 

Dr McKee has confirmed hundreds of post-mortem diagnoses, often in contact sport athletes and military veterans, but after studying María’s brain tissue in 2019, concluded the extent of degeneration was more severe than that of any previously examined athlete or soldier.

“[Alzheimer’s and CTE] were both very severe by the time of death, and then compounding that is just this incredible loss of nerve cells and white matter fibers, the likes of which I’ve never seen in CTE or in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr McKee.

While María’s diagnosis is the first public case of CTE linked to domestic violence, her daughter knows there are millions of women worldwide who suffer from similar brain trauma. 

Dr María E. Garay-Serratos is the founder and CEO of the Pánfila Domestic Violence HOPE Foundation, and during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, she wants her mother’s story to open a lifesaving global conversation.

“At a minimum, we need governments, media, and the medical community to begin educating women and men about the health risks of domestic violence and the necessity of seeking treatment after a violent attack involving the head,” said Dr Garay-Serratos.

A documentary film, This Hits Home, has been produced featuring María’s story, to help warn of the dangers. 

The call between Dr McKee and María’s family, in which McKee disclosed her groundbreaking findings, is a key scene in the documentary. It also features Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founders Dr Chris Nowinski and Dr Robert Cantu, both prominent campaigners on CTE. 

The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Throughout This Hits Home, director Sydney Scotia features Dr Garay-Serratos’s search for scientific answers to her mother’s neurological decline. 

The film also calls for more scientific and medical awareness for the estimated 75 per cent of domestic violence survivors who suffer single or repeated traumatic brain injuries.

“We know domestic and intimate partner violence are tragically underreported, but this type of brain trauma is also under-researched,” said Scotia. 

“The link between these injuries and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE and dementia is an urgent research priority.”