Life can change unexpectedly and bring trials and suffering, but for those who know the Lord, there is always hope.
That was the poignant message that Jay and Katherine Arnold Wolf left with students at their alma mater, Samford University, Thursday, Nov. 18.
“Suffering is universal, but the source you draw from when you go through trials is the key to survival,” said Katherine, who was 26 years old and the mother of a six-month-old son when she had a nearly fatal brain stem stroke in April of 2008.
The Wolfs, both 2004 Samford graduates, were in Malibu, Calif., where she was pursuing a modeling career while he studied at Pepperdine University law school. Katherine’s sudden illness put them on a two-year course that included surgeries, 40 days of intensive care and longer stays in hospital and rehabilitation settings.
During it all, the couple has drawn from their faith, a supportive family and faithful community of friends.
“It is miraculous that I survived,” said Katherine, whose blood was replaced five times during the first 16-hour surgery. Although she and her husband felt God’s presence from the beginning, she admits that it is hard seeing life not go as planned.
“You may never do the x-y-z that you thought, but you will do this x-y-z on a different path,” said Katherine, who continues recovery. She speaks clearly but slowly and with some difficulty, has double vision and little use of her right hand, and walks aided by a cane and Jay’s steady arm.
The couple, who still live in California, spoke to a capacity convocation crowd in Reid Chapel about their journey since her stroke and lessons learned along the way.
Life is fragile, said Jay. Although Katherine has had to “claw her way back,” he said, “God gave us strength without which our suffering would seem impossible to deal with.”
When the couple first moved to the west coast, they took a spiritual gifts test that revealed Jay’s gift of faith and belief in miracles, which, Katherine kiddingly noted, were seemingly “less usable” than some of her gifts. But their individual gifts were what each needed.
“God created me in that way so I could be a foundation of faith for Katherine and the family,” said Jay.
“He knew I would be best used in ways other than I had thought,” said Katherine, who was a communications major and Christian Women’s Leadership minor at Samford. Although her face and body are not as before, she believes that people are now more likely to listen when she shares her story of suffering and faith. “In a way, God has called me to do something special.”
“God wired her to take circumstances and deal with it,” said Jay of his vivacious wife, who was a Miss Samford and member of Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society. “God knew that she would be able to get through it with His help and her positive attitude.”
Katherine, who says her “positivity” is from the Lord, underscores the power of attitude.
Early in the ordeal, a speech therapist told Jay that Katherine would never eat because of damage to her swallowing nerves.
“But nobody ever one told me that, so I had it as a goal to eat,” said Katherine, who regained her swallowing ability after 11 months. “There’s something powerful about what you think.”
The couple has learned about perspective. “You can always draw strength from something that is worse,” said Katherine, who asked for prayer for a young woman she knows who is a quadriplegic and another who suffered burns over 80 percent of her body. To Katherine, both are in worse plights than she.
“We don’t live in a perfect world, but we are blessed,” said Jay. “The reality is that if you know the Lord, there’s always help. Regardless of your suffering, think about what Christ did and sacrificed. Suffering is one of the most valuable ways to know Christ. God is less concerned about your healing than about your relationship with the healer.”
While thousands of miles away from family—Jay is from Montgomery, Ala., where his dad is pastor of First Baptist Church, and she is from Athens, Ga., the couple learned the importance of their new California friends.
Members of a large Sunday School class that they led maintained a constant three-week prayer vigil in the beginning and supplied food for four months. “We had an intense community about us. Our friends were committed. It was really powerful,” said Katherine, especially grateful for a friend who took long-term care of their infant son James, now 3.
“We had that type of community because we sought it out,” said Jay, advising students to do the same when they graduate college. “The decision to plug into a community or church will be one you’ll never regret. Make it a priority. Christian fellowship is unique and important.”
There is still much healing to be done, and the couple covets prayers for continuing medical issues. Yet, there is a strong message of optimism.
“Throughout our ordeal, God has given met the contentment to deal with it,” said Katherine. “We know that God will give you what you need to survive.”