At age 26, Katherine Arnold Wolf seemingly had it all. She was young and stunningly beautiful, pursuing a modeling career in sunny Malibu, California. She was happily married to her college sweetheart and had recently given birth to a healthy baby boy. But on April 21, 2008, Katherine’s world changed forever after a massive brain-stem stroke nearly claimed her life.
“It happened out of nowhere,” Katherine remembers. “There were no symptoms, no warning signs.”
That day, after putting her six-month son down for a nap, Katherine’s arms and legs suddenly went numb. She staggered to her knees and started violently vomiting. Luckily, Katherine’s husband, Jay Wolf, who was a law student at Pepperdine University at the time, was writing a paper in the next room. He heard the commotion and immediately dialed 911.
“We always joke that Jay’s procrastination saved my life,” Katherine says. “If he hadn’t been there that day to call the paramedics, who knows what would have happened.”
As the Wolfs would later find out, Katherine’s stroke was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain. When an AVM ruptures, blood can seep into the brain, causing stroke, brain damage or death. Although the cause of AVMs is unknown, it is thought that most are congenital and form before birth. And, like Katherine, most AVMs do not present with symptoms until it’s too late.
“I was in perfect health,” Katherine says. “I didn’t smoke, I ate well, I exercised almost every day.”
By the time Katherine arrived at UCLA hospital, she had already lost consciousness. The neurosurgeon claimed that her AVM was the largest he had ever seen, in the worst possible location, and with the worst possible blood drainage. Her prognosis was grim at best: She wasn’t expected to recover, much less live. The CT scans and testing done in the emergency room revealed that Katherine was on the verge of death. That day, she underwent an emergency brain surgery that lasted nearly 16 hours.
Against all impossible odds, Katherine survived. Nearly 24 hours after the surgery, she responded to a nurse’s command to wiggle her fingers and lift her toes, an unheard of success for someone in her condition; for 40 days after that, she lingered on life-support in the ICU, defying death time and time again.
Katherine and Jay Wolf both agree that her survival was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that Jay was home that day to call 911; a miracle that Katherine wound up in the hands of a knowledgeable and skilled neurosurgeon; a miracle that she made a full recovery, with her mind unscathed. “I am blessed,” Katherine says.
For the next year and a half, Katherine remained in hospital and rehab care while her family looked after her young son, James. During that time, she relearned how to walk, how to speak, and how to swallow, each new milestone marking a small miracle. Katherine emerged from the stroke with her bright personality and optimistic spirit intact, and she refused to sink into despair. Though the journey was arduous, Katherine was aided by the unyielding support of her family and, most of all, by her strong faith.
Coming from a deeply faithful Christian family, Katherine credits God for helping her stay strong in the face of unimaginable suffering.
“My faith clearly impacted my recovery because of the amount of hope that I had. It helped me cope with the pain, it gave me something to live for,” she says. “It’s literally your worst nightmare, and yet you keep on going.”
Today, nearly six years after the stroke, Katherine continues to make remarkable progress. Several obstacles remain, including double vision, deafness, facial paralysis, impaired walking and balance, lack of fine motor coordination in her hand, and even a small brain aneurysm (which was removed in November of 2013). And yet the Wolfs live each day fearlessly and passionately, celebrating the beauty in small everyday moments—the comfort of a home-cooked meal, the meditation of a quiet walk on the beach, the brilliance of a sunset. Katherine’s motto is simple yet empowering: “A handicapped body does not equal a handicapped life.”
But her message goes much deeper than that. Confident that her story can inspire others, Katherine travels the country as a motivational speaker, spreading her inspiring doctrine of hope and renewal. She and Jay also blog about their experiences on their website, HopeHeals.com.
Katherine’s journey has opened her eyes to many truths—to the fragility of life, to the importance of community, to the resilience of the human spirit. But above all, she has learned the transformative power of embracing true hope. According to Katherine, people have two choices in life: to respond with bitterness or to respond with joy. Day after day, she chooses joy.
“People so quickly think that they can’t handle things, they think that they’re not going to survive, that there’s no hope,” she says. “But I would say almost the opposite is true. People are much more capable and able to rise to the occasion and be resilient than they think they can.”
Adds Jay: “We don’t have a lot of control over the things that befall us in life, but what we can control is our reaction. Through negative or tragic experiences, I think we all have an opportunity for growth. It doesn’t have to be the end of someone’s story just because their life turns out very differently than they thought it would. These challenges can actually prove to be a very unexpected and surprising beginning. And that, in and of itself, is very hopeful.”