Suffering. It is something that 37-year-old American Katherine Wolf is all too familiar with.
On April 21, 2008, the aspiring actress, model and former beauty queen collapsed in her living room. Her family would later learn that she had suffered from a massive brain stem stroke that would leave her fighting for her life.
The surgeon that operated on Katherine said the mass of blood vessels in her brain was the largest that he had ever seen in the worst possible location with the worst amount of bleeding. Despite the odds, he operated on her. The surgery took 16 hours and at the end of it, Katherine had lost 60 per cent of her cerebellum and many vital intra-cranial nerves.
When she woke up, she couldn't walk, talk, or eat, and half of her face was paralysed. Everyone expected she would die or, at best, remain in a vegetative state but God had other plans for her.
This terrible twist in what had been, up to then, an idyllic life, set Katherine and her family on a path of self-discovery and spirituality. It wasn't one they would have chosen for themselves, but their remarkable journey has touched many lives.
This is how she describes that time in her life: "Here I am, 26-years-old, a new mother, barely out of the newlywed phase of life and now I'm being told essentially your life is shot, it's over, and there's no hope. The reality is, I knew on a deep level that they weren't right."
This was because Katherine had grown up in a believing home and was herself a committed Christian. She believed in Jesus and His ability to heal her but over the next few years, this trial would stretch her and her family's faith to breaking point.
In the messiest, darkest part of her life, Katherine called out to God who, she says, has helped to change her perspective. "Whatever happens to you, whether it's bad or great, it's how you respond to it that matters.
"My relationship with beauty and satisfaction with my body has always been complicated at best," she admits. "The bags under my sleep-deprived eyes suddenly paled in comparison to the reality that my body and brain no longer worked like they used to. Now, after the near-fatal stroke, the body in which I lived was not only different but altogether unknown and unsafe. Where do you run when your own body turns on you?"
Katherine's experience has completely redefined her definition of healing. Years of hardship, tears, pain and lots of intense rehab have seen her relationship with God grow stronger and stronger.
Since the initial stroke, she has undergone three life-saving procedures, 11 surgeries, suffered a broken leg, and had to get a brain aneurysm removed.
Throughout it all, Katherine hung onto a Bible verse from Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."
She is truly a "miracle girl," her husband Jay says.
"The reality is that it's been a tough pill to swallow. We've been through the wringer again and again and the one thing we know for sure is that God was faithful before and He will be again."
Jay has walked a challenging journey of his own, finding "a newfound freedom, knowing that God would give us life in ways we could never have asked for or imagined."
Seven years later Katherine, against all medical odds, became a mother again. She named her second son John Nestor, after the surgeon who saved her life that fateful day. "My busted-up body made a baby —my own living reminder that beauty can come from brokenness and new life can come from near death," she smiles.
A favourite Bible verse in the Wolf family, one that reminds them of God's everlasting love and faithfulness, is Hebrews 6:19: "We have this hope [of eternal life] as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure."
"My face is paralysed on the right side. I can't walk well and mostly require a wheelchair to get around," Katherine explains.
"I can't drive. I have severe double-vision and lack fine motor control in my right hand. While my stroke stole much of my independence and some of my 'traditional beauty', it also freed me from the lie that death can be outrun. I met death when I was 26. The magnitude of that experience means I no longer feel the need to cover up my flaws or conceal my brokenness because I now know that life is simply too precious and short to carry the burden of shame."
Katherine wants her story to be an encouragement and a support to others who are suffering. She has written several books and study guides, runs a blog, and regularly uploads to social media as a way to reach and teach others. She and Jay have started a ministry, Hope Heals, and run summer camps for people with special needs, and their families.
Throughout, Katherine demonstrates what the 'new kind of beautiful' is, one that is not just skin-deep but soul-deep.
Katherine ends her testimony with these words of wisdom: "When my standard of beauty is redemption, not weight; when it's sacrifice, not self-absorption; when it's new life, not chasing youth gone by, I can see how my body embodies the gracious gift of a second chance at simply existing. And what could be more beautiful than that?"•
To learn more about Katherine's story, read her books Hope Heals and Suffer Strong: How to Survive Anything Redefining Everything or check out her blog or Instagram account hopeheals.