Kay Wolfe is a thriving entrepreneur who lives in Midtown with her husband Robert and dog Fritz. She also happened to survive a severe stroke more than a decade ago. She now uses her humor and competitive spirit “to not be beaten by this” to inspire other stroke survivors.
“I do everything that I used to do – but I do it slower and different. I am at every Clemson football game. I might have to sit in a different seat, but I will die before I miss a ballgame,” Wolfe said.
Her life journey took a detour on a typical morning in August of 2005.
“Sitting at my (home office) desk early one morning, I could tell that something was suddenly very, very wrong. I knew what it was, so I called my husband immediately and said, ‘I’m having a stroke can you come home cause I’m going to have a problem here in a minute’,” Wolfe recalled.
A stroke is the rapid loss of brain function from a hemorrhage or blockage in the brain. Symptoms can include dizziness, paralysis on one side of your body or face, and sudden and severe headaches. With prompt treatment brain cells can be saved. Every minute counts.
“I knew I was at risk, because I have a brain arteriovenous malformation, a congenital birth defect that’s a bad nest of vessels in my brain. In 1998, I had a small bleed without any lasting damage,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe’s husband was already en route to work so he called 911 and raced over to Northside Hospital’s Emergency Room.
“We said our, ‘I love yous and goodbyes.’ As I was hanging up, I could hear the sirens and thought this is going to be fine. When I got to the hospital, it wasn’t fine,” Wolfe said.
After nearly a week in ICU, she could sit up and achieve other milestones. With her medical needs stabilized, Wolfe was discharged to Shepherd Center to start her brain injury rehabilitation.
“When this happened I was in a dark place. I thought to myself, you can curl up in a ball and cry and die or you can live like this and see how it ends. To do that I had to work my butt off,” Wolfe said.
She made progress, but developed a bad case of spasticity. Damage to her brain was blocking messages to her muscles causing her arms and legs to cramp up, like a bad charley horse. She tried Botox for two years, but that wasn’t a sustainable solution.
“My muscles were always tense and flexing. I couldn’t walk, sit, dress or do anything,” Wolfe said.
Her doctor at Shepherd Center suggested a relatively new technology called Intrathecal Baclofen Therapy (ITB). This required implanting a hockey-puck sized pump, which must be refilled every five to seek weeks, into Wolfe’s abdomen to release medicine into her spine.
“It doesn’t make it so you can run again, but it makes it so you can have legs that are straight and bend again. Muscles relaxed enough so they can work,” Wolfe said.
Without ITB, Wolfe may have ended up in a “nursing home curled up in a ball”. Instead she continued to improve.
“Kay has put in the work and continues to do so with ITB Therapy, walking daily, and inspiring others with her positive spirit,” Shepherd Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Yochelson said.
Now they turn to her to help others along.
“When the Shepherd Center physicians and therapists have a case who’s struggling emotionally or has lots of questions – they’ll bring me in. I show how to put on a shirt. Sometimes it takes me three times. But I do it, because I will not be beaten by this,” Wolfe said.
She even started a web design and digital marketing business with a former colleague.
“We knew a number of small businesses that needed a website, but dang it they just want to make cupcakes, or brew beer or sell plants. So, we do that for them,” Wolfe said.
Still, Wolfe is not sure what all the fuss is about and humbly wonders why we are the better for hearing her story.
“I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Just because you’ve had a stroke and ended up in a wheel chair or with a limp – there may still be hope. I’m handicapped – so accept that – and how are you going to live this way,” Wolfe said.