‘I’ll Love Who I Am’: Kathy Laurinaitis shares her harrowing medical journey

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Kathy Colace Laurinaitis, with one side of her face drooping, struggles to relax and let her bright, natural smile shine through during a photo shoot in her luxurious condo.

Interviews and photo shoots are important to Laurinaitis, as, for the last year, she had surgery for a blueberry-sized benign tumor on her brainstem and now deals with its aftereffects. She documented part of her journey on her twin daughters’ show “Total Bellas,” and she yearns to continue that journey to bring awareness to brain health.

On Laurinaitis’ one-year survivor anniversary, the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona announced it will honor her at its Brainiac Bash…a Soiree to Support Brain Health on Friday, January 14, at North Phoenix’s Chateau Luxe. She will speak at the gala and receive the Woman of Courage award.

The evening will feature ballroom routines from competitive dancers and prominent Arizonans, including Barry Goldwater Jr., Dr. Dina Shacknai, Carrie Martz, Debbie Gaby and Julie Xander, and a performance by the Bella Twins, Nikki Garcia-Colace and her fiancé, “Dancing with the Stars” professional Artem Chigvintsev.

Initially, Laurinaitis — who is married to WWE legend John Laurinaitis — was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which her daughter Brie thought was due to stress. Brie — one half of the WWE’s Bella Twins with her sister, Nikki — encouraged her mom to have acupuncture.

“‘Total Bellas’ did not ask us to showcase it then,” Laurinaitis says. “It was my husband who said, ‘Do you want to showcase this to bring awareness?’ When I showcased Bell’s palsy, a lot of people reached out to me and thanked me for doing it. A lot of people with Bell’s palsy are embarrassed. I get it. I thought, ‘I am that person now.’”

When their mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Nikki and Brie were weeks away from giving birth. This should have been a time of great joy for the family, which also includes son JJ and stepchildren Maya and Zack.

“Kathy and her family found themselves in a frightening situation, navigating uncharted territory after her brain mass diagnosis and then recovery after a 14-hour surgery,” says Carrie Collins-Fadell, director of the statewide nonprofit Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona. 

“No one would have blamed her if she wanted to keep her health struggles private, as there is so much stigma around brain health and injury, but instead she actively chose to be an open book and went through her process on national television.  She has been incredibly open about her cognitive challenges and the immense hard work of recovery, in the process becoming a voice for so many others.”

“Total Bellas” did not cover Laurinaitis’ entire story. The last season ended just after she underwent brain surgery. She says she feels OK, but there is still a long battle ahead. She has double vision, which happened after the brain surgery.

“I’ve not only had brain surgery,” says Laurinaitis, who’s been treated at the Mayo Clinic. “I had two eye surgeries because my eye wouldn’t close. I have a titanium weight in my upper eyelid. In my lower eyelid, they took 6 inches out of a muscle in my thigh and made, what they call, a hammock.

“They put it in the lower eyelid to help it close. I had to have it twice. I had the first one done and then the titanium weight fell. So, I had a second surgery. I drive with a patch, because of the double vision, and I just saw my ophthalmologists. There’s too much of a gap in my double vision to use a prism glass.”

Confident and well spoken, Laurinaitis says she has suffered from anxiety during the roller coaster year. 

“I saw my doctor yesterday, and they said that’s normal because of the trauma,” she adds. “I’m not used to feeling that way. Coming out of the surgery, for the first six months, I was relying on people for help. That, in itself, has been a learning process.”

Her husband has been her rock during the medical journey. Laurinaitis says John took 30 days off from the WWE and “never left my side.” His support helped her get a jump-start on the healing process and getting back to work.”

From the diagnosis to today, Laurinaitis says it’s been a learning experience. Many think of accidents as the only cause of brain trauma, when surgery can be just as damaging.

“I feel like the brain is the queen bee. She does so many different things,” she says.

“In my world, with what I’ve learned in the last year, is it gets forgotten until something happens. Also, it’s like a muscle. When you look at stroke patients or people going through any type of brain trauma, it’s all about being patient and giving the brain time to recover.”

Laurinaitis is in line for more surgeries. She’s hoping plastic surgeons might be able to help with her face, as “I’m not giving up on my face.” Her goal is a full recovery.

“I’ve come a long way,” she adds. “I’m just trying to be patient. If this is who I am, this is who I am. I’ll love who I am, but it hasn’t been easy to do that. It’s changed me.”

Laurinaitis says it’s an honor to speak at the gala. She whole-heartedly supports the nonprofit.

“I just look at everyone the organization has helped, and that makes my heart happy,” she says. “I read all the stories on social media and, oh, my gosh, some of the stories about what these people and children have gone through are just heartbreaking.”

She says she has not quite planned what she is going to say at the gala.

“Everyone sitting out in the audience has a brain,” she says with a slight smile. “I’m going to bring awareness to everyone about brain trauma and brain health. What this organization does for people, and not even the person who is the survivor but also the family. The family goes unnoticed in a sense. They worked so hard to help, and it’s not easy.

“Most people have jobs, and they’re trying to help and take care of the survivor. It’s also recognizing that it’s a team effort with the patient, the medical team and the family.”   

 

Brainiac Bash…a Soiree to Support Brain Health

WHEN: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, January 14

WHERE: Chateau Luxe, 1175 E. Lone Cactus Drive, Phoenix

COST: Tickets start at $250

INFO: https://biaaz.org/event/brainiac

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