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Stroke survivor finds beauty in suffering

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–From across their Malibu, Calif., apartment, Jay Wolf heard his wife, Katherine, yell the words that would change their lives forever.

“Come in here,” she cried out. “I don’t feel right.”

Wolf found his wife suffering from strange symptoms. In a few minutes, it brought Katherine to her knees, then knocked her flat on the floor.

As their 6-month-old son, James, slept in another room, Wolf called an ambulance. By the time it arrived, Katherine was vomiting and couldn’t feel her legs. When paramedics checked her vital signs, they found nothing wrong.

Katherine was rushed to UCLA Medical Center, where on that day — April 21, 2008 — tests delivered a medical death sentence. “I remember the doctor came out and said, ‘It’s not good,'” Jay recalled.

Katherine had suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke. A tangle of abnormally formed blood vessels in her brain had ruptured. The pressure was pushing her brain down into her spinal cord.

Katherine’s condition was the worst her neurosurgeon had ever seen. The prognosis was abysmal: She probably would not survive surgery, and if she did, she likely would remain in a coma or vegetative state. Given the slim chance of survival and the fear of lawsuits if she died in surgery, it was possible the doctor might not even operate.

This wasn’t, of course, what the Wolfs had planned for their lives. After graduating from Samford University in Birmingham, they moved to California to chase their dreams. Wolf was finishing law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, while Katherine worked as a model and had joined the Screen Actors Guild.

Now their future seemed to be falling apart.

“It could be me losing my wife at 26 to a stroke,” Wolf recalled thinking. “That didn’t make any sense.”

The neurosurgeon decided to risk an operation. During the 16-hour surgery, the deformed blood vessels were removed, along with half the cerebellum area of Katherine’s brain — the body’s coordinating center for muscular movement. Seven cranial nerves, vital to motor and sensory functions, were damaged in the process. Her entire blood volume was replaced five times.

The couple had the support of their church family. More than 100 people prayed for Katherine in the hospital waiting room on the night of her surgery. “My heart stopped every time the waiting room phone rang,” Wolf said. “I felt like I really didn’t know what God had for us.”

Katherine lived. Following the surgery, she was placed in a medically induced coma to heal. Less than 24 hours after the operation, she could move her toes and fingers on command — an unheard of recovery for someone in her condition.

“That early sign that she wasn’t paralyzed or brain dead was truly a gift from God, and it provided me a supernatural peace that in time, Katherine would be well again,” Wolf said.

Katherine regained consciousness after a month and a half, awakening to a bizarre reality. “I woke up in the hospital wearing a medical diaper, with a feeding tube coming out of my stomach, hooked up to IVs,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? What’s happening?'”

The life-saving surgery had caused significant damage to her ability to control her muscles. She couldn’t swallow or walk. She had severe double vision and was deaf in one ear. Her right side was weakened and her right hand nearly useless. The right side of her face was paralyzed and her speech was slurred.

But Katherine didn’t panic. “I could have ripped out things and started screaming and crying,” she said. “It could have been really bad. But none of that happened. God gave me a supernatural contentment to deal with this.”

Forty days after her surgery, Katherine was moved out of the intensive care unit to begin almost four months of rehabilitation.

Jay Wolf credits God for giving him and her the ability to endure. “God gave us all the strength we needed to deal with something that, on the surface, would be almost impossible to deal with,” he said.

Katherine agreed. She recalled clinging to John 16:33, in which Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

“I knew God was in control,” Katherine said.

Her husband was constantly by her side. Wolf made sure his wife got the best possible care — to the degree that hospital staff called him “Dr. Jay.” Katherine said her husband demonstrated his devotion to her in the most trying of circumstances. “Early on, I told him, ‘Just get away. Go on vacation,'” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’m not going to leave. You’re not going on vacation, so how can I?'”

After more than five months in the hospital, Katherine moved to a rehabilitation center in Pomona, Calif., where she continued therapy for more than a year, facing the restrictions of her broken body.

Some days were more painful than others.

On her blog, Katherine recounts when she heard her son wake up from a nap and say “Mama” for the first time.

“He wanted his mama to get him out of his crib but his mama can’t walk,” Katherine wrote. “I fought back sobs and said as chipper as I could sound, ‘James, Mama can’t come get you right now. Mama loves you so much though.’ I dissolved into sobs.”

But through her suffering, Katherine resolved to face her challenges head-on with a positive attitude. “I thought to myself, ‘You can do this,'” she said. “It’s not easy, it’s not fun and it’s hard but God will give you what you need to survive it.”

A speech therapist at the hospital had told Wolf his wife would never be able to eat — or even swallow — again. But Wolf never informed Katherine of that prognosis, and she doggedly performed exercises to help her swallow. On March 25, 2009, she passed a swallowing test and began to eat once more.

“I think there’s something exceptionally powerful about what you think,” Katherine said.

Once considered as good as dead, Katherine Wolf has made remarkable progress in a recovery doctors call miraculous. She has learned to walk with a cane and recently had surgery that will, over time, reanimate the right side of her face.

Yet Katherine still faces enormous impairments. She can’t dress herself. Her speech is still slurred. She has very little stamina. She still suffers from double vision and deafness in one ear, and her right hand is still essentially useless. Yet she betrays not a hint of bitterness or self-pity. Cracking jokes about her condition, she shows that her optimism and bubbly personality have not faltered.

Neither has her trust in God.

“This is not at all what I had planned, but that’s when God says, ‘My plans are better than your plans,'” Katherine said. “It may be a different path, but it can still be a beautiful path.”

Katherine sees in her stroke not a curse to be resented but an opportunity to tell others that Jesus is truly enough, no matter what happens.

“Before my stroke, people would not necessarily have listened to what Katherine Wolf had to say about that,” she said. “Now they will.”

As for Katherine’s outward beauty that was marred by the stroke, she has found something much more valuable. “Instead of relying on your outward appearance, you have to go to a deeper place for beauty, rather than saying, ‘How I look is all that matters,'” she said.

Citing 1 Samuel 16:7, which says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,” Katherine said, “Perhaps the response to suffering is what real beauty is all about anyway.”

Jay Wolf, who said he has learned much about the fragility of life, shows no resentment or anger over the trials he and his wife have endured. Instead he speaks of them as a chance to know Jesus more.

“When we do experience suffering, that is an opportunity to know Christ in a new way, not only to trust Him but to experience Him,” Wolf said. “Suffering is probably one of the most valuable ways in which we know Christ so it’s not wasted. Nothing is ever wasted for a Christian.”

Katherine is trusting Christ to sustain them in an uncertain future. “I don’t know much but I know He is good even when things are bad,” she wrote on her blog. “And somehow, that’s enough.”
John Evans write for the Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of churches affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention. Katherine Wolf’s blog is located on the Internet at www.katherinewolf.info.

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  • John Evans