'Having a Stroke as a New Mom Changed Everything, but I'm Treating It Like a Gift'
After an unexpected brain stem stroke at 26, Katherine Wolf was re-learning how to eat at the same time her 6-month-old son was trying solid food for the first time. Eleven years later, she’s teaching her kids that we are all more than what our bodies can do.
Katherine Wolf considered herself a "shell-shocked new mom" when she brought her first-born son James home from the hospital in October 2007. She was living in Los Angeles with her husband Jay, who was then a law student. "I was up half the night, breastfeeding constantly. It's pretty intense to have that new baby."
Sounds familiar, right? Whether you're a new parent or a seasoned vet, we can generally all agree on one thing—that initial year of your child's life is full of exhaustion, changes, and challenges. You are learning about your baby and they are learning about you. It takes time for everyone to fall into sync for even the healthiest of families.
But in April 2008 Katherine's path of motherhood diverged drastically from that of her peers. At the age of 26, she suffered a massive brain stem stroke from the rupturing of a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Her prognosis was grim and more than half of her cerebellum and many vital intra-cranial nerves were removed during a 16-hour surgery. Katherine spent two months in a coma, but she survived. James was just 6 months old and Katherine spent her first Mother's Day in a hospital bed. All of her "perfect mommy" ideas went out the window.
"It was quite awful, especially really early on when my brain didn't understand yet that I wasn't taking care of him," she says. "That maternal instinct is just so deeply wired. When I was awake again after being unconscious for those first two months, when someone brought James in the room I can remember thinking they were bringing him to me to care for now. It took many, many weeks to even understand that I was not capable of that anymore and that he would be living elsewhere while I stayed in the hospital."
In an effort to personalize her rehabilitation, the physical therapy team put the word James on a weighted ball. She would practice holding the ball as if it were a baby, first for one minute, then two, then three, just to relearn what it was like to hold him.
Katherine's road to recovery was long and arduous. "I was relearning to eat food as James was starting to eat food," she recalls. "Basically from the time he was 6 months old to about 3 years old I relearned to do everything again. It was so surreal because I was really learning to do them in conjunction with James learning to do them."
It takes a village
As a husband and new father, Jay, who was just three weeks shy of graduating law school when Katherine had her stroke, tried to stay hyper-focused on all of the steps necessary to sustain life for his family. Fortunately, the couple was able to call upon relatives and a tight-knit community from their church to help fill in the gaps, parental or otherwise, during this crucial time.
"I think it embodies the reality that this work of parenting is not only just solo, it's also not even just a couple, but it also's a village and it's communal," Jay says. "It requires a lot of different people entering in and sacrificing and loving your kids well and helping when you can't do everything that needs to be done."
Despite the grave circumstances, Jay recalls several good fortunes which helped the couple endure. Both Katherine and Jay's mothers were readily available to provide much-needed help. And $50,000 that Katherine had won on the game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? during her pregnancy arrived in the mail while she was in the hospital. The Wolfs maintained the mindset of counting their blessings.
"When you have a brain stem stroke at 26 out of the blue, you realize maybe life is not going to turn out for me or for my children like I thought it would, as I deserve it to, or like I feel like I am entitled for it to come," says Jay. "I think, counterintuitively, that is a great gift. It takes some of the pressure off of thinking I have to do all these things and check all these boxes and orchestrate the pieces of my child's life in a certain way."
While going through rehabilitation and adjusting to her new normal, Katherine experienced fears understandable for any mother. She worried her physical limitations wouldn't allow her to keep James safe and was deeply concerned having a mother in a wheelchair might breed a complex or victim mentality in her son later in life. In an effort to work through these uncertainties, Katherine drew upon her deep faith.
"My deep belief that God has really called me to something very unique on earth...that my whole life has been about preparing me for this and that I would thrive within this context," she explains. "As hard as that pill was to swallow, something deep inside of me knew that God was with me in this and that this was something that I really could handle in this life, and that it would be a very unique assignment for my life story, but it was a very, very beautiful one."
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Healing over time
After consulting a lot of doctors and facing obstacles and risks, Katherine gave birth to a second child, their son John, in 2015—seven and a half years after her stroke.
"I literally gave birth to John with a view of the hospital room I was in for months in rehab at UCLA," she says. "It was really, really tricky with the mind in a poignant, powerful way to see the old room that was truly like nearly dying and then in a new room where I'm having new life. It was wild."
Today Katherine and Jay are founders of the non-profit ministry Hope Heals, an organization designed to inspire and help others through faith.
"We really try to universalize our story, because it's so easy to compartmentalize other people's struggles," says Jay. "Katherine can't drive. She can't get around easily on her own. She's got some major obstacles, and yet, we love to tell our kids that they've been made to do the hard things and that's still a good story that they're living out."
Katherine echoes this sentiment and notes that her physical challenges have made her realize that we aren't only our bodies, but so much more.
"The sum of who you are has nothing really to do with how well your body functions," she says. "We are our souls, our personality, the unique characteristics we have, our memories. Those are the things that make us who we are. So what I'm giving to my kids may not be the special meal I prepare every night for dinner, but instead, it's the core of who I am."
Katherine adds that "living as a mother with a disability is actually a profound gift because they're seeing life being broken and not perfect. I think maybe the biggest gift that I can give the world is the recognition that we are not merely our bodies or what our bodies can do."
Something to remember the next time any of us, as parents, feel as though we aren't enough.