Just how does someone survive anything? Really? Not long ago I talked with a woman who truly exudes a lighter heart in tough times. You’ll find her story real and remarkable. Katherine is the kind of woman we could sit down with for coffee and suddenly discover we’ve talked for four hours. Katherine and her husband, Jay, both are inspiring examples of bending when life dares you to break.
For Thanksgiving 2008, Katherine Wolf remained out of the swirling activity in the kitchen and family room. Family and friends scurried fixing dinner and setting the table. Boisterous laughter arched and echoed into the corner where Katherine slumped in her wheelchair, her slender chin clutching her chest.
Amid the cacophony of holiday cheer, Katherine willed her eyes to focus on loved ones fussing over her baby boy. But silently she moaned to herself, I don’t think this world will work for me…it won’t work.
Hovering Between Life and Death
Life thins down to the bare essentials when your doctors place three basic outcomes on your life: vegetative state, paralysis or death. After a massive brain stem stroke at age 26, Katherine hovered on the invisible precipice between life and death
Yet what remained visible was a frozen shell of the vivacious wife, mother, model and Southern belle who gracefully charmed with her sweet smile and expressive baby blues.
“I was basically in a coma-like state on life support for 40 days,” Katherine recalls of the weeks following her April 21, 2008, catastrophic stroke. “I didn’t fully wake up and have memory until after two and a half months.”
After surviving the stroke caused by a ruptured congenital brain defect—an arterial venous malformation (AVM)—Katherine endured a 16-hour surgery that removed part of her brain and pushed her future into a haze of unknowns.
“I was so bad off. I faced tremendous fear about what my life would look like because I could not eat, speak, or walk,” Katherine explains. “The doctors had no idea what would happen with me. The situation was so grave.”
Katherine’s husband, Jay, juggled intensive care visits with single parenting of their infant son, James, born just six months before his mama fell horribly ill. The much-in-love couple met at Samford University in Alabama, a few hours west of Katherine’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. They married in 2004 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue law school for Jay and the entertainment industry for Katherine.
Would Their Marriage Splinter?
A myriad of questions haunted the couple after Katherine’s shocking reversal of health. Would she live? What kind of physical functions would she regain? How could she be an engaged mother? Would their marriage splinter like so many couples that face a life-altering tragedy?
Not being able to take care of baby James, let alone herself, proved terribly painful. Through the tears and fight to regain a full life again, Katherine experienced God’s steadying presence.
“Very quickly in that season, I felt comforted by the Lord that He was walking with me and taking care of me. Even though my stroke was unbelievably traumatic and shocking, I sensed that it could not be for nothing,” Katherine says. “The stroke pointed me deeper into my faith. I began to see that God actually had chosen me for this life and assigned my story to me with a purpose.”
Instead of despairing throughout her nearly two years of full-time neuro rehab and eleven operations, Katherine day by day concentrated on what she was rebuilding and not on what she had lost. As she re-learned to talk, swallow, eat and walk, she leaned into her incredibly supportive husband and adorable son. And God was closer than ever.
Together Katherine and Jay call themselves disruptors of the myth that joy can only be found in a trouble-free, pain-free life. In 2013 they formed a nonprofit ministry, Hope Heals, to speak, write books and champion for the truth that suffering and joy can coexist in anyone’s challenging story.
Their marriage is a testament to enduring love for better or for worse. “We like to say that that thankfully we’re not codependent. We are actually interdependent and we see that actually as a tremendous blessing,” Katherine shares. “We work together all the time with our ministry. Jay is my permanent chauffeur because I can’t drive, so we naturally spend a lot of time together. After my near- death experience, we grew closer because he survived it with me.”
Katherine is quick to praise Jay’s unflappable character through all they have faced since that fateful spring day in 2008.
“Jay has an amazing steadfastness that I think is really a quality that not just many men, but many people choose to never use. Many people really feel like the victim in their story and Jay and I believe that is not a wise choice for a believer in Christ,” Katherine explains. “We are the overcomers and we are more than conquerors in our stories. God has purpose and calls us to persevere and to live with the endurance and the steadfastness that are from Him.”
Meeting Katherine in person or through their thriving online community, one cannot miss her own exuding endurance and steadfastness. All this from a brave-hearted warrior whose mind is clear and quick-witted, but her body does not cooperate as she would like.
Katherine can only walk a few steps with a cane, her eyes struggle to track together and the right side of her face remains paralyzed. Still Katherine is more beautiful than ever with her upturned smile and inspiring blend of grit and grace.
In 2015, seven years after her stroke, Katherine gave birth to their second son, John. The two boys together bring loads of energy and laughter into the Wolf’s home now in Atlanta.
One of the family’s greatest triumphs and passions is the summertime Hope Heals Camp for families affected by disability. Jay and Katherine describe themselves as “survivors, communicators and advocates” and their infectious never-give-up spirit is laying a foundation for others broken by loss, illness, fear and other wounds of body, mind and spirit.
Katherine and Jay are living examples of broken things that form new and resplendent blessings. In sharing their journey with others, the winsome couple boldly declares that it is an honor to suffer.
“Suffering is for other people to watch as you are remaining faithful stewarding you’re suffering well. Our suffering should be gauged differently than just ‘this is the worst thing,’” Katherine adds. “Even when you are going through horrible things, there is a time and awareness that God is working and you have an audience watching. You get to point them to Jesus by what you’re going through.”
Looking back on Thanksgiving 2008, Katherine is grateful that she has preserved in her new world to kindle healing and hope in her life and in the lives of countless others.
Adapted from my article in Power for Living, David C. Cook Publishers, 2021. Visit HopeHeals.com for more information on Katherine and Jay’s books, camps and helpful resources.