Katherine and Jay Wolf had, what many would consider, a perfect life. They had a wonderful marriage, he was in law school, she was a model and they had just welcomed their son six months earlier. But everything changed on April 21, 2008. While preparing food for some people at their church, Katherine felt her hands, arms, and legs go numb and fell to the floor, as their infant son napped in his crib. Jay just happened to come home for lunch that day, and found his wife on the floor. She was rushed to the hospital and surgeons determined she had suffered a massive stroke in her brain stem, caused by a twisted cluster of arteries that had been there since birth.
She underwent a 16-hour surgery where doctors removed 60% of her cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls motor functions. The surgeon described the mass of blood vessels in Katherine’s brain as “the largest he had ever seen, in the worst possible location, and with the worst possible amount of bleeding.” Her surgeons feared this would leave her paralyzed or possibly in a vegetative state. She was kept on life support for 40 days. When she woke from her coma, her right side was paralyzed, and she couldn’t swallow, speak or walk.
“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. “I couldn’t articulate how I was feeling, so I’d use my left hand and 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 the surgeries, my biggest fear was that my life would only be defined by a stroke and disabilities,” Katherine recalled. “I thought God had made a mistake. I couldn’t walk, eat, see or take care of myself. But I heard God say, ‘I don’t make mistakes, there is a purpose in all of this.’ I came to understand that this was a unique opportunity to look at life differently.”
After four months in the hospital, Katherine was moved to a brain rehabilitation facility.
Doctors also feared she may never swallow again and be connected to a feeding tube the rest of her life. After nine failed swallowing tests, Katherine passed and was allowed to eat 11 months after her stroke. It took her 18 months to learn to walk again, and she was able to return home two years after her stroke.
Now 13 years later, Katherine continues to experience severe double vision, partial facial paralysis, partial deafness, and lack of right-hand coordination. She still cannot walk on her own as her balance is impaired, so she uses a wheelchair outside of her home and a cane inside.
The Wolfs see God’s hand throughout all of this. How Jay came home that day, and how Katherine may not be alive if not for that.
After 11 surgeries for Katherine, they have learned to find hope in their Christian faith, and to share it. “It’s ultimately God’s story, what He’s doing in the world, bringing life where there should only be death,” Jay said.
The Wolfs have spent the years since Katherine’s stroke disrupting the myth that joy can only be found in a pain-free life. They’ve dedicated themselves to helping other couples with disabilities by sharing their story of hope. Their want to “hope it forward” to other couples as it states in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
They founded Hope Heals, a nonprofit Christian ministry that advocates for people with disabilities. It offers rest, resources and relationships to broken bodies, brains and hearts. The couple also authored a book titled, Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love. And in 2017, the Wolfs started Hope Heals Camp, a free week of fun and fellowship for families affected by disabilities.
“Our ministry is encouraging people with broken hearts and broken bodies, which is everybody,” says Jay. “Even people who don’t have the outward signs of suffering may be suffering on the inside. Our faith is in the God who makes it all okay. What is broken by earthly standards is not broken in the kingdom of God. Ultimately, the soul is what matters, not the body. What is eternal is not this broken body.”
The Wolfs live by the statement “don’t wait to celebrate.” Each year, the family celebrates “Katherine Lived Day,” on the day of her life-saving surgery 13 years ago. “We remember how far God has brought us and we cherish our present reality. We’re living in such a fragile world,” Jay said.
And to show God’s grace and incredible hand in their lives, the Wolfs welcomed their second child, John Nestor Wolf in 2015; named after John, the author of one of the Gospels, and Katherine’s neurosurgeon, Nestor Gonzalez, who saved Katherine’s life.
As Katherine says, “Whatever happens to you in life, whether it’s bad or great, it’s how you respond to it that matters. It’s how you think about it.”
Photo Credit: Cameron Powell