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Sharing Hope

  • Author: Katherine W
  • Date Submitted: Jul 13, 2021

In 2008, at just 26, Katherine Wolf suffered a near-fatal stroke that left her unable to walk, speak, or swallow food. For Katherine and her husband, Jay, new parents to a six-month-old baby, life stood still. But where many would despair, they found hope.

Following life-saving brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center, Katherine spent 40 days in the ICU and another three months in UCLA’s Acute Rehabilitation unit, making small functional gains. Sensing the need for a more aggressive approach, her neurosurgeon recommended Casa Colina’s renowned program in stroke rehabilitation.

That’s how the Wolfs began their long season of healing. With thousands of hours of therapy, Katherine has since relearned to ambulate, to speak articulately, and to enjoy a full, healthy diet. Her “new normal” has many challenges. She typically uses a wheelchair and can’t drive. Her right hand has no fine motor coordination, so she’s now left-handed. As a result of her facial paralysis, her right eye won’t fully close, requiring a timeconsuming daily care routine. And she has double vision.

Yet the effusive, energetic Atlanta resident doesn’t let her disabilities define her. Based on her success as both a parent and a champion for the disability community, it’s hard to disagree. She’s a capable mother, celebrated public speaker, and published author of two books: Hope Heals and Suffer Strong.

“It really hasn’t held me back in the arena of life,” Katherine says. For all its adversity, she considers her new reality a gift. “It’s a miracle I’m alive—that I relearned to eat and walk. Who would have thought I could recover this much?”

Much of that recovery she attributes to Casa Colina’s Transitional Living Center (TLC), where she spent nearly a year and a half regaining function while her family lived nearby in one of Casa Colina’s adjacent homes. Katherine fondly remembers her occupational therapy, during which she and Jay were taught new skills to implement at home.

“It was such good training for my life,” she says. “You can’t do it the way you used to, so you come up with a strategy. It’s been so helpful for my brain to see it that way.”

Six years after her stroke, the Wolf Family received a biological miracle of sorts: Katherine was expecting. The high-risk pregnancy was closely monitored, including a scheduled C-section. But the baby came early—and fast. In the end, Katherine delivered her healthy new son, John, in a triage room, naturally and without medication—with a view of the UCLA hospital building in which she originally recovered, no less.

And so it has gone. The Wolfs have become comfortable with the uncertainty of a reality shaped by catastrophic injury, accepting the risks and rewards of living life on their own terms. They’ve also come to understand the healing power of their story. In 2012, they began speaking at churches, diversity conferences, and other forums, finding that hope “translates universally,” as Katherine puts it.

In 2017, they founded Hope Heals Camp, a two week gathering outside of Birmingham, Alabama— the city where Katherine and Jay first met. Now in its fourth year, Hope Heals brings together individuals with disabilities and their families to heal and share resources, with a focus on respite and relationships. And it’s growing. Last year’s camp hosted more than 800 from 35 states (and the UK), with 33 types of disabilities represented.

When they’re not working, the Wolfs try hard to maintain a life of routine and happiness for their boys. There’s a concerted effort to live what they call their “second-chance life”—effecting meaningful change in the world while “not wanting to miss what’s right in front of us,” says Jay. As for the future, Katherine doesn’t worry much.

“How could I possibly be scared when the history of everything that’s ever happened to me has all, in the end, turned out really well?” she says. “It’s a miracle I’m even alive. And I don’t want to take a minute of it for granted.”