A Young Stroke Survivor Shares Her Story

285 MommyBrain “Mommy’s Brain Got Hurt”

A young mother survives a stroke determined to raise awareness and embrace positivity.

Katherine Wolf was a 26-year-old wife and new mother breaking into the commercial modeling business in Los Angeles when she felt a little “funky” one morning. She wondered if she might be pregnant again.

That afternoon, as her six-month-old son was napping in the other room, her hands, arms, and legs went numb. Katherine dropped to the floor and curled up.

Her husband, Jay, happened to come home minutes later. He called 9-1-1, and Katherine was rushed to the hospital, where she would spend 16 hours undergoing brain surgery.

Katherine had suffered a massive brain stem stroke. Doctors now know that she was born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). An AVM occurs when a tangle of blood vessels bypasses and diverts blood directly from arteries to the veins, which can cause damage to the blood vessel walls. In Katherine’s case the AVM ruptured and caused bleeding into her brain.

Doctors removed more than half of Katherine’s cerebellum during surgery and had to sacrifice many of the intracranial nerves that allow function in the face, eyes, ears, and throat. They didn’t know if Katherine would survive or, if she did, whether she could ever be taken off life support.

Katherine spent 40 days in intensive care and nearly four months overall at UCLA Medical Center before being transferred to Casa Colina, a rehabilitation center in nearby Pomona, where she had to relearn basic functions like eating, speaking, and walking. “Literally, everything was gone,” Katherine says.

It was 11 months before she could swallow food again. Until then she was fed through a tube in her stomach. Katherine managed to take a few steps about a year and a half after the stroke. Today she can walk a short distance with a cane; she also uses a wheelchair.

Since the stroke she has had nine surgeries, including one in the summer of 2012 to place a rod in her right leg, which she broke in multiple places as the result of a fall. She continues to experience severe double vision, partial facial paralysis, partial deafness, and lack of right-hand coordination.

Despite her continued challenges, Katherine has emerged with her personality and memory intact—along with her optimistic spirit. “We do not have control over what happens to us in life,” she says. “What we have control over is our response to what happened to us.”

Katherine, now 31, relies on her Christian faith as she enjoys daily life with Jay and her son, James, now five. She is grateful that the stroke occurred at home, not while she was driving with James, and that Jay unexpectedly came home that day. “I don’t believe in happenstance,” she says. “I feel like he was home to save my life.” Jay, who had been finishing work for his final law school class at Pepperdine University that day, jokes that his procrastination saved Katherine’s life.

Occasionally, James sees photos of his mom from before the stroke, but he’s never really known his mother any way other than how she is now. “He says, ‘Mommy’s brain got hurt,’” Katherine says. “It’s really sweet.” Sometimes he asks Katherine questions about her life before the stroke, like whether she could run fast before her brain got hurt.

Today Katherine spends time volunteering in James’s pre-kindergarten class and is passionate about giving inspirational speeches of hope and raising awareness among women about strokes. She became involved with the American Heart Association by speaking at Go Red for Women luncheons in the Los Angeles area. She also is featured in a new campaign by the American Stroke Association—“FAST”—about using body language to recognize the warning signs of a stroke. Katherine represents the F, which stands for “face drooping,” in both a video and print ads.

Katherine says she’s heard that challenges can make you bitter or beautiful. She’s choosing beautiful. “It’s really a miracle that I’m here,” she says, adding that her faith and continued hope have helped her cope with this life-altering adversity. “It’s deeply gratifying to me to be able to share hope with other people,” she says. “Hope heals your soul.”  _