the interview

How a Massive Brainstem Stroke Transformed a Family

The Detour that Was the Way of Hope

Nov 30, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

On April 21 of 2008 Katherine suffered a massive brain stem stroke. Strokes are always inconvenient; there is never a moment when one would say: Sure, this would be a good time. But in this case the stroke’s timing was particularly devastating and unexpected. Katherine was only 26 years old. She had a six-month-old baby and her husband, Jay, was in his third year of law school. Katherine, who grew up in the South, was not just in California because of her husband’s studies. She was in the process of starting a modeling career.

The stroke couldn’t come at a worse moment. Luckily, just as the stroke began, Jay had come home to pick something up before going to class. He quickly called an ambulance and Katherine was rushed to the hospital. Once there, Katherine immediately went into surgery. As family and friends gathered over the next few hours it slowly dawned on Jay that his wife was in mortal danger.

Was she going to die or was she going to live only to suffer from a locked-in syndrome? A locked-in syndrome is when the brain is working and the patient has full consciousness but where all the motor skills are paralyzed. Katherine survived, but her brain stem was damaged and life would never be the same for them. Life took a detour and where was God’s guiding light? I spoke to Katherine and Jay about their experience, their life after the stroke, and their understanding of God’s presence in all of this.

Was she going to die or was she going to live but suffering from a locked-in syndrome, where the brain is working and the patient has full consciousness but where all the motors skills are paralyzed?

Katherine, what did you experience when you woke up?
I woke up and had no memory before that time. It was bizarre and tragic to realize there was a new life ahead of me that had been totally turned upside down. I was breastfeeding my baby at home. I was perfectly fine and healthy without any symptoms. And now suddenly I was fully handicapped. I was taken down to zero. I got a feeding tube in my stomach and a tracheotomy in my throat and I could no longer do anything. I could just lay in the hospital bed for months. It was obviously horrible and super difficult to adjust. In my mind it had just been a couple of days though and I had no idea it had actually been several months since I had that stroke.

Did you feel trapped in a body that seemed to tell the outside world that you were cognitively impaired? Was there a sense of panic: How do I get out of this body?
Absolutely. I wrote in the letterboard that I had to communicate: ‘I am the same on the inside!’ I kept doing this over and over again. I really wanted my family and friends to know that even though my body didn’t work I was fully the same on the inside and nothing has changed cognitively.

Katherine, you write in the beginning of your book that God does not make mistakes and that He is part of the story He writes. So where was God in your stroke and in the after effects? How can such a debilitating stroke be part of God’s plan?
It is extremely difficult to talk about the sovereignty of God within the context of terrible tragedy and sufferings so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do believe strongly that nothing happens to us without God fully knowing it. I don’t have all the answers, but God signs off on all the things that come to earth and He is at work. He is not sitting back watching a broken world unravel; He is involved for sure. God is at work.

This is not one moment experience but an unfolding journey of trusting, questioning, struggling, finding contentment, and peace. It’s a sort of never-ending cycle throughout our whole lives.

How was that for you, Jay? I read in your book that when you had this panic feeling wondering whether Katherine would live, you were strongly reminded of Romans 8:28, where Paul says ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.’ But you also realized later that God is also culpable; that God is guilty and is part of what is going on here. So, where is God in all of this for you?
Yes, that is really where I went from theology to the practical. It is where the rubber meets the road. When I read Romans 8:28 in the waiting room on that first day, I just felt I had to take that leap of faith into the truth of what God has said. I had to believe it and release some of these horrifying questions and fears and doubts. This is not one moment experience but an unfolding journey of trusting, questioning, struggling, finding contentment, and peace. It’s a sort of never-ending cycle throughout our whole lives.

The other moment—that moment of seeing God as guilty—was just a few days after the surgery while I was reading through the book of Job. Katherine was totally asleep and I was beside her in her ICU bed and the juxtaposition of this very broken and hurt body that had been hurt violently by the doctors in order to save her life—they had taken off her skull! Of course they had done so to effectuate her healing. That insight connected with a passage in Job chapter 5 where it says that God’s hands wound but that they heal as well. It is painful to us to see that this God whom we love and trust as our Father would be part of the wounding. But then, this God does it ultimately for our healing. This is deep water and you don’t treat that lightly. God uses our suffering. I have seen it in the cross: the worst painful tragedy of history becomes the avenue for redemption. So it requires a pretty big paradigm shift to ask the question: ‘God what are you doing here? How are you working this out?’

I think that the severely disabled person that I am will absolutely be fully restored in heaven one day. But even now on earth I am completely healed because it was my soul that was hurt, my heart that was broken

Katherine, your experience has caused you to redefine healing, can you explain that and how does that connect with the absence of complete physical restoration?
I’ve been in a quest of redefining everything I understood about being a Christian. I think I’ve misunderstood the meaning of many words. If I am living in the kingdom of God then that definitely includes healing. I think that the severely disabled person that I am will absolutely be fully restored in heaven one day. But even now on earth I am completely healed because it was my soul that was hurt, my heart that was broken; the inside was really angry and I felt God had forgotten me and it really hurt my feelings. But God healed that. I feel no anger towards God; I feel no sense of injustice and I am very content. I feel happy. I love my life and I think that is actually what healing is. It’s an internal thing not an external factor in this world.

How were you able to keep your marriage together through this ordeal?
When I promised Katherine that I’d marry her in sickness and in health I more or less assumed that there might be sickness towards the end or something. I didn’t expect for this to happen three years into our marriage. And to be totally honest, I don’t take much credit for still being married. There was this sense of God saying ‘I am surrounding you with all the resources you need.’ We all marry our spouses not knowing what we’re in for. So in the end, I was not the only one experiencing the unknown or unexpected. After all we become different persons through the seasons of our marriage. For me it was extremely humbling and eye-opening to see us fall in love with a new person, the new person we had both become through this experience.

You decided to write a book about your story. In some ways interesting since there is no full restoration. You can’t brag about a sudden miracle. Yet you want to share this with others. Why?
Well, we feel there is a lot to brag about, says Katherine. The reason behind the book is to show a different side to what it means to brag about something that was supposed to work but didn’t. We think that is the cool side to our story. It is amazing to share authentically about a life that potentially doesn’t fit into the box of what the wealthy healthy worshipper today in America would like. This is what messy faith looks like in the embrace of a faithful God.

Katherine and Jay Wolf have written a book about the fateful stroke that hit Katherine and the painful and hard road to recovery. With the help of God and her husband, Katherine learned to speak, swallow, walk, and care for their son. In their book the Wolfs trace this remarkable story of their unexpected detour which, as they believe, is God’s perfect road for them. Check out their website, Hope Heals, or buy their book ‘Hope Heals’ today.

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