Katherine Wolf: Former Model and Brain Stem Stroke Survivor

Updated:Sep 25,2014

Although ‘Mommy’s brain got hurt,’ former model remains upbeat and optimistic.

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.
 
Suddenly, as her 6-month-old son was napping, her hands, arms and legs went numb. Katherine dropped to the floor and curled up.
 

Her husband, Jay, happened to come home that afternoon. He called 9-1-1, and Katherine was rushed to the hospital.

She would soon spend 16 hours undergoing surgery on her brain.
 
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Katherine had suffered a massive brain stem stroke. Doctors now know she was born with an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. That’s 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 part of Katherine’s brain during surgery. They didn’t know if Katherine would survive or, if she did, whether she would ever be off life support.
 
She spent 40 days in intensive care and nearly four months overall at UCLA Medical Center, then moved to Casa Colina rehabilitation center. She re-learned basics like eating, speaking and walking.
 
“Literally, everything was gone,” she said.
 
It was 11 months before Katherine 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.
 
This past summer, Katherine, now 30, fell and broke her right leg in multiple places. That setback required surgery to place a rod in her leg.
 
Since her stroke, she has had nine surgeries. She continues to experience severe double vision, partial facial paralysis, partial deafness and lack of right hand coordination.
 
However, she’s 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 said. “What we have control over is our response to what happened to us.”
 
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Katherine relies on her Christian faith as she enjoys daily life with Jay and her son, James, now 5.  She is grateful 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 said. “I feel like he was home to save my life.”
 
Jay had been finishing work for his final law school class at Pepperdine University. He jokes that his procrastination saved Katherine’s life.
 
Occasionally, James sees photos of Katherine from before her stroke. But he’s never really known his mother any way other than how she is now.
 
“He refers to ‘Mommy’s brain got hurt.’ It’s really sweet,” she said. Sometimes, James asks Katherine a question like whether she could run fast before her brain got hurt.
 
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Today, Katherine spends time volunteering in James’ pre-kindergarten class and is passionate about giving inspirational speeches of hope. 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 about using body language to recognize the warning signs of a stroke “FAST.” Katherine represents the “F,” which stands for face drooping, in both video (opens in new window) and print ads.
 
She enjoys sharing her story and established a website at www.hope-heals.com (opens in new window). Katherine said 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 said, adding that her faith – and continued hope – has helped her cope with this life-altering adversity.
 
“It’s deeply gratifying to me to be able to share hope with other people,” she said. “Hope heals your soul.”


Donate today to help people with cardiovascular disease or stroke or become an advocate with You're The Cure. You can also get involved with one of our many causes, like Go Red For WomenHeart Walk or Power To End Stroke, take a CPR class or volunteer in your local community!