On April 21, 2008, 22-year-old Katherine Wolf — a newlywed from Birmingham chasing her modeling dreams in Los Angeles — collapsed in her kitchen while her newborn boy napped in the other room. Her husband, Jay, stopped by between law school classes to find Katherine had suffered a massive stroke from a rare congenital defect she never knew she had. Everything in their lives changed from that moment. After a 16-hour brain surgery, 40 days in ICU, a year in neuro rehab, and 11 operations, Katherine’s recovery is ongoing to this day. Her miraculous survival was followed by another miracle: their second baby boy born in 2015.
Now living in Atlanta, Katherine strives to disrupt the myth that joy can only be found in a pain-free life by way of her public speaking, best-selling books, and organizing the Hope Heals Camp for families affected by disability. We can’t wait for you to meet our newest FACE of the South, Katherine Wolf.
Tell us a bit about your younger years at Samford and in California.
Samford was wonderful, and I absolutely loved living in Birmingham! It’s where I met my college sweetheart, Jay, whom I married after graduation. We moved to LA as newlyweds and were living our dream when I unexpectedly got pregnant with my son James.
How did 25-year-old Katherine picture her life going?
I imagined my life would be successful, easy, and full of comfort. It never occurred to me that all my dreams of a perfect life might not come to fruition.
In as little or much detail as you want, how did day-to-day life change after the nearly fatal stroke you suffered?
I lived in hospitals and brain rehab for a year and a half after my stroke. In order to save my life, part of my brain was removed, leaving me with life-long disabilities and having to re-learn to do everything from walking to eating to speaking. Once I could move back home, life was totally turned upside down. Jay, who had just graduated from law school, had to care for me full time and continues to even today. He drives me everywhere, helps cook and clean, and takes care of the boys. It was an entirely new reality.
Having been a new mother during this time, how did the importance of family shine through during this experience?
My mother and mother-in-law became empty-nesters when our youngest sisters graduated high school a month after my stroke. This allowed both of them to spend the majority of their time in California. One of Jay’s sisters moved home from Ethiopia, where she was working as a missionary, and lived with us for six months. Quite simply, we couldn’t have done it without them! And as a mother, those maternal instincts really deeply motivated my recovery. I was literally relearning to walk as my baby was learning to walk, too. He beat me at most of those milestones, but it was a powerful reason to continue persevering so I could be his mom again.
How did things shift for you — in a big-picture way — after that?
I came to understand that there is no such thing as a perfect life. I recognize that while I have significant limitations, that is everyone’s story. No one is truly free, even people who are typically abled. That was freeing for me and helped me feel less isolated but more of a living-word-picture for the flourishing we can all find within our limitations.
Tell us about Hope Heals.
Hope Heals is a faith-based nonprofit that Jay and I founded in 2013. We’re disrupting the myth that joy can only be found in a pain-free life. We have written two books, speak around the country, and have founded Hope Heals Camp for individuals and families affected by disabilities that have forever changed their lives.
What’s a common misconception that people have about brain stem strokes?
A huge misconception with brain stem strokes is that they all result in losing cognitive abilities. My cognition and personality were not affected at all, but my body was severely affected. Also, strokes can, unfortunately, happen to young people. My stroke was caused by a rare congenital defect, an AVM, that I had no idea I had. There was no warning or symptoms and no family history. Anyone experiencing sudden issues with their speech or vision or paralysis of the face or limbs should be checked out by a medical professional immediately.
What’s something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
That I can walk! Technically, I can hobble short distances without any assistive devices. My balance is what needs support, rather than my actual legs, which is why the wheelchair is so necessary.
Where can we find you on your days off?
Here’s a “lightning round” of questions:
Last best meal: The cheeseburger at The Chastain
Favorite Atlanta hidden gem: Blue Heron Nature Preserve
Last vacation: A weekend in Savannah, GA, for my husband’s birthday (including a visit to fabulous The Grey)
Favorite boutique: Bella Cucina or Pollen for gifts and flowers, and Ann Mashburn (whose family is part of our Hope Heals Camp) for all things style!
What’s on your bedside table: sparkling water, dark chocolate, a big silk Lunya eye mask (since my eye doesn’t close all the way due to facial paralysis), Beautycounter lip conditioner, and Audible on my phone, which helps me read/listen to SO MANY WONDERFUL BOOKS!
Go-to birthday present: Gift card to Sugarcoat Nail Salon
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
My friend and mentor, Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been a quadriplegic for 50 years and runs an international disability ministry Joni and Friends says, “God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” That paradigm shift has brought so much healing and hope to my hardship.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without?
Kombucha or strong coffee, my electric wheelchair so I can zip around, and my trusty iPhone, which has been connecting me to the world since my life turned upside down!
Thank you, Katherine, for sharing your story and the beauty you’ve made from it.
Read more interviews with our inspirational FACES in our archives!