After performing a 16-hour micro-brain surgery on Katherine Wolf, her doctor spoke these words to Katherine’s husband Jay: “Katherine lived.” There were still many unknowns, but on April 22, 2008, those two words set the Wolfs’ lives on a trajectory of hope.
Katherine was a 26-year old mother to 6-month-old James in the spring of 2008. She and Jay, married in 2004, were living in Culver City, California, where she was pursuing a career in modeling and acting, while Jay was in law school at Pepperdine University.
On April 21, while cooking meals for members of her church, Katherine collapsed in her kitchen. She had suffered a massive brain stem stroke. It was caused by the rupturing of an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an abnormal connection between arteries and veins, which usually occurs in the brain or spine. It’s a rare congenital defect Katherine didn’t know she had.
During the intense surgery that followed, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez removed 60% of Katherine’s cerebellum and many vital intracranial nerves, which would possibly leave her paralyzed or in a vegetative state. She remained on life support for 40 days before she began the journey of what she calls her “second chance life.”
“When I woke, I had IVs, a tracheotomy, a feeding tube and I had paralysis on my right side, including my mouth and tongue,” said Katherine, now 38. “I couldn’t articulate how I was feeling, so I’d use my left hand, as my dominant right hand no longer worked, and I’d type out letters on my letterboard that would speak my words. I frantically cranked out ‘I’m still the same on the inside’ over and over.”
After four months at the UCLA Medical Center, Katherine moved to a brain rehabilitation facility.
“It was there when a swallowing therapist sat me down and told me to prepare for the worst-case scenario, that Katherine would probably never swallow again, which was particularly devastating because Katherine’s love of food is legendary,” said Jay.
Despite that discussion and nine failed swallowing tests, Katherine was allowed to eat again in March 2009, 11 months after her stroke. In October, 18 months after her stroke, Katherine walked. She moved back home with her husband and son in 2010.
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“Life after brain rehab was a continual longing to sneak in the back door of our old life and pretend nothing had changed, but, at the same time, realizing that suffering had birthed us into something totally new,” said Jay. “Thankfully, the perspective of where Katherine has been as well as stories of so many others who connected to us online with really hard, different stories, motivated us to find gratitude in our new second-chance life.”
In 2013, Jay and Katherine launched Hope Heals, a nonprofit that serves to offer rest, resources and relationships to broken bodies, brains and hearts. Through their faith-based ministry, they travel the U.S. for speaking engagements at Fortune 500 companies, fundraisers, retreats, diversity forums and churches.
They also host Hope Heals Camp annually for families affected by disability. They have authored two books, “Hope Heals” and “Suffer Strong,” the latter of which was released in February. They have gained a strong media following with their @hopeheals handle and Sony Pictures optioned the rights to make “Hope Heals” a movie.
“The support and community created by Hope Heals has led us to see there is a deep, universal reality that we are all disabled in our own way; we all have invisible wheelchairs,” said Katherine. “Our pain may look different, but our deepest healing comes when we’re part of someone else’s healing. We are not meant to suffer alone. We have each other and we have God. Life defines us, but suffering redefines us.”
Miraculously, in 2015, with the permission of Katherine’s medical team, the Wolfs welcomed their second child, John Nestor Wolf, named after Katherine’s neurosurgeon.
“Seeing Katherine’s motherhood taken away from her [after the stroke] was one of the worst experiences of all,” said Jay. “Watching over the years the process of it coming back has been one of the most beautiful experiences. As deeply impacting as a brain stem stroke is to one’s most basic human functioning, it seems perhaps the only deeper impulse was that of a mother’s love. This continued to motivate her overall recovery.”
Today Katherine considers herself intensely disabled, but high functioning.
“I cannot drive, which is a huge hardship as a mother of little ones,” said Katherine. She’s nearly blind in her left eye and has double vision in the right eye. “My eyes don’t track anymore.”
She’s also totally deaf in her right ear. “Everything on the right side of my body is impaired,” she said.”My face is paralyzed on the right side and my right hand doesn’t have fine motor coordination. I can hold something, but my hand doesn’t fully work.”
Though Katherine says she “hobbles” around her house a bit, she cannot walk on her own as her balance is impaired. She uses a wheelchair outside of her home, a cane inside and now has a tall 12-year-old in James, who like his dad, is always willing to help.
In 2018, the Wolfs moved back to Georgia, Katherine’s home state, and now reside in Atlanta, near Chastain Park.
“We love it here,” said Katherine. “Passion City Church has been a huge touchstone for us, we’re huge fans of Chef Ford Fry, we love The Optimist, as well as our proximity to the airport, since we travel so often.”
Like everyone else in the midst of the coronavirus quarantine, the Wolfs are looking forward to getting back to their favorite routines, like walking to Fellini’s for pizza on Friday nights. This season of unknowns resonates with them deeply and aligns well with the theme of their book “Suffer Strong”.
“As we care for ourselves and each other and maybe look for a reset, it can be hard because we’re annoyed about being stuck at home,” said Jay. “But we can look outside ourselves and ask how do I get to be a part of loving someone well right now?”
A mantra the Wolfs live by is “don’t wait to celebrate.” Last month the family celebrated a sacred holiday they call “Katherine Lives Day,” in remembrance of Katherine’s life-saving surgery 12 years ago.
“Remembrance is an active, intentional invitation and we’ve found that to be so important as we’ve retold our story and shared it with our kids,” said Jay. “We remember how far God has brought us and we cherish our present reality.”
Follow Jay and Katherine Wolf on social media @hopeheals or their website www.hopeheals.com
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