By Ellen Fortini Courtad
There’s something surprising about Kathy Colace Laurinaitis that she doesn’t mind sharing. The managing partner of JBN & Associates recruiting firm. She is a self-proclaimed chicken.
“People know me in business, so they think I have that no-fear personality,” she confides. “But I am such a chicken. I fear bugs. I will never go skydiving. I am not adventurous at all. I want to sit in front of the ocean all day long, yet I have no desire to go in it. But I think that’s why with my business there is no fear, because we learn from failure.”
Kathy’s innate ability to get back up in the face of adversity served her well in her personal life over the past two years. She underwent surgery in June 2020 to remove a blueberry-sized mass from her brain stem. Initially diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, the grandmother of five managed her symptoms, including dizziness and facial drooping, with acupuncture while she waited for her MRI appointment.
She takes some responsibility for the late diagnosis, which came along almost five months after her symptoms began. She could have called to ask if anyone cancelled an appointment for an MRI to get her own earlier, but she felt rather well and saw improvements with the acupuncture, so she waited for the formality of the scheduled appointment.
Her condition started on Super Bowl Sunday in 2020. Kathy and her husband, John Laurinaitis, planned to attend a Super Bowl party, but she woke up feeling dizzy. She describes herself as “blessed to be really healthy,” noting she rarely even gets the flu or headaches. So, when her dizziness got worse that day, she grew concerned and laid down, assuming she was experiencing vertigo and excused herself from the festivities.
Another party was imminent for Kathy: her daughter Nicole’s gender reveal. The Monday after the Super Bowl, Nicole urged Kathy to go to the doctor and be checked for the flu, not only out of concern for Kathy, but also for her other guests. Unable to get to her regular doctor immediately, Kathy made an appointment for the following day at urgent care and asked her stepdaughter, Maya, to drive her. In the meantime, Kathy FaceTimed her daughter Brianna, Nicole’s twin, also expecting a baby, to ask her if she thought the left side of her face looked droopy. Brianna did, noticeably on the left side of Kathy’s mouth.
Nicole and Brianna are well known to audiences as Nikki Bella and Brie Bella – The Bella Twins, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) divas and stars of the E! reality shows Total Divas and Total Bellas. Kathy herself became a recurring cast member of Total Bellas since it began airing in 2016, with many aspects of the family members’ lives on public display, including Kathy and John’s 2016 wedding. Beyond running a top recruiting firm, Kathy has been in the spotlight for the better part of the past decade.
When Kathy and Maya arrived at the urgent care clinic for her scheduled appointment, the doctor told them she couldn’t treat Kathy there. Unable to rule out a possible stroke, the doctor said the treatment Kathy needed was not available at the urgent care. With the Mayo Clinic just around the corner, Maya drove Kathy there immediately. At that point, Kathy’s walk wasn’t off balance, nor was her speech slurred, but she let the doctors know she previously experienced cold sores and shingles, caused by the virus linked to Bell’s palsy.
Although she didn’t feel as bad as on Sunday and wasn’t as dizzy, Kathy said the doctors at Mayo still wanted to do an MRI, but due to scheduling, would be several months out. While waiting, Kathy began acupuncture treatments and started seeing results, specifically in her facial drooping.
At the beginning of May, the Mayo Clinic contacted her to ask if she wanted the MRI. Kathy declined because she felt almost completely healed. Her face was nearly back to normal, in fact, while filming Total Bellas, the production crew commented they could hardly tell she had Bell’s palsy.
In early June, Kathy went out for a run and suddenly felt nauseous. “I felt like I wasn’t even going to get home,” she admits. But she got home safely, laid down, and put her legs up to get her circulation moving better. “Ten minutes later, I was fine,” she said, and chalked up the nausea to exercise-related discomfort.
She began researching more on Bell’s palsy and learned most recovery happens between two weeks and six months, and five percent of patients never recover. For Kathy, nearly five months after her initial symptoms, this information was discouraging. Despite feeling well, she said, “It never crossed my mind that something else was wrong.”
Then on Father’s Day, Kathy said she felt horrible again. “It felt like it did on Super Bowl Sunday,” she remembers. Her left eye was sensitive, and she felt she was experiencing a relapse. She recalls filming a scene for Total Bellas when crew members recommended she go in to be seen. The following day, she was off-balance and John insisted they go to the doctor immediately. While John got tested for COVID-19 so he could accompany Kathy to her appointment, she recalls telling him confidently, “You’re being tested only to come in and take me back home again.”
But by 7 p.m., a neurologist walked into the room. Kathy remembers thinking, “This isn’t good.”
She describes the next few moments like hearing the muffled voice of the “Peanuts” characters’ teacher: “Wah-wah-wah.” Kathy couldn’t make out what the doctor said beyond “We found….”
The doctor discovered a mass on her brain stem the size of a blueberry. “Is it a tumor, or is it cancer?” she wondered. They explained a mass is an accumulation of blood vessels in the brain.
That’s when she met Dr. Bernard R. Bendok, the lead surgical neurologist at Mayo Clinic, who confirmed surgery was necessary. At this point, Kathy recalls COVID was at a spike, and both Nicole and Brianna expected to give birth within the month. Dr. Bendok asked if she wanted to delay the surgery until after the birth of the babies. “John asked him what he would do,” Kathy said, “And Dr. Bendok said he would do it now. But they still sent me home. Surgery was scheduled for the next Tuesday, and we knew that if anyone on his team got COVID, we’d have to postpone again.”
At the time, Total Bellas was still in production for season six and continued to film. Kathy and John quickly made the decision not to hide the diagnosis and surgery, and, in fact, to present it in the hope of further awareness of brain health.
“Total Bellas did not ask me to showcase this,” Kathy insists. “They were as worried as we were. John asked if I wanted to as a way to reach out to other people. We spoke to Andrea and Michelle [the showrunners], and they showcased it beautifully and were so respectful.”
A very real-life reality show moment happened on-screen the day before Kathy’s surgery, when she and John sat down with Nicole and Brianna to discuss their feelings and their fears. Kathy said part of that included her post-surgery fear of “Am I even going to be here?”
“We’re a blended family,” Kathy explains, “so I wanted to make sure that my children don’t forget about Johnny in case something fatal happens. I wanted them to make sure to all stay together. [The producers] didn’t say anything. They knew we were all getting together and we just let the cameras roll.”
The following day, June 30, 2020, the expected eight-hour surgery ended up lasting fourteen hours. Dr. Bendok discovered the mass hemorrhaging caused her facial paralysis. “He told my husband, one more hemorrhage and it would have been fatal,” Kathy said. “God had his hand over me because, let me tell you, Dr. Bendok specializes in what I have. There is a reason I ended up at Mayo. He and his team and everything about Mayo was amazing. You always wonder if a doctor has a good bedside manner, but really all you want is for them to be best in class and then you can handle anything else that is given to you. But he is truly an amazing individual. Not only gifted, but as a person, he is truly a very special man.”
Remarkably, the doctor released Kathy two days later and she returned home, where John eagerly became her full-time caregiver. As the general manager of talent for the WWE, Kathy said John, whom she calls “the rock of the family,” is known as a confident businessman, but as her caregiver, she was able to see a different type of confidence in him. She describes him as nurturing, encouraging, and intuitive. “It was amazing; you’d think he was a nurse,” Kathy said. “He had the bathroom set up; he got a walker; he logged my medication; I never missed a meal, and he never complained. He didn’t leave my side for 30 days. He is an instrumental part of why I am at the level I am in my recovery,” she said. “He was off the charts. In tough times, he figures it out.”
One month after her initial surgery, both of Kathy’s grandsons were born: Nicole’s son, Matteo, with professional dancer Artem Chigvintsev; and a day later, Brianna’s son, Buddy, with professional wrestler Brian Danielson. The film crew captured the moment Kathy and John met the babies in a touching scene on Total Bellas.
Kathy experiences double vision since the surgery and takes part in physical therapy for her eyesight. She didn’t drive for six months, but now drives with an eye patch. She went through two eye surgeries because her left eye wouldn’t close all the way. In September 2020, the doctor placed a titanium weight in her upper eyelid, and surgeons removed six inches of muscle in her thigh to create a sort of hammock in her lower eyelid to enable blinking. “I was blown away at how my leg was so much more painful than brain surgery,” Kathy said.
In February 2021, another surgery with the titanium weight helped her eyes to blink. She continues with acupuncture, as well as pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF). “I truly believe that aftercare and those treatments have helped my face. Together they are a blend of western and eastern medicine, and it’s brought a lot of circulation into that side of my face.” Kathy said she was told to expect a 30-40 percent chance of full recovery from the facial paralysis in the first year, but she thinks improvement will take longer. “I continue to get movement, even a little movement, but it’s still movement, and I have hope for full recovery,” she said.
Kathy isn’t stopping her work with JBN & Associates for a pandemic or slowing down for her illness. Rather, she took on an additional role – that of advocate. Kathy plans to use her platform to encourage the importance of early diagnosis, as well as awareness of brain injuries. “My message is a couple of things,” she said. “First, don’t be me. Get the MRI. Just because it seems to be Bell’s palsy, take the step to get the MRI. I stopped calling because I was getting results from acupuncture. But both relapses were hemorrhages.”
Secondly, Kathy continues to promote awareness of brain issues, as she did on Total Bellas from the onset. “I got so many DMs from people dealing with Bell’s palsy saying, ‘Thank you for showing yourself even when it’s so uncomfortable. A friend’s niece got diagnosed with Bell’s palsy after I did and recovered quickly and I thought, oh, it must be youth. But then she got an MRI after my situation, and she had a tumor around her temple area.’ So, getting the message out does help, even if it helps just one person.”
Kathy is also quick to give credit to her caregivers, namely John. “Recovery is the team that surrounds you,” she said. “Not just the medical team, but family, too. Caregivers go unrecognized. I didn’t have to worry about so much because John took care of everything, and when you don’t have to worry about that, it just allows more time for recovery. Not everyone has that, and that’s why this organization is so important. We want an avenue for those who don’t have that to have somewhere to go.”
Carrie Collins-Fadell, CEO of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona said Kathy’s willingness to share her story so publicly is rare and will go far in promoting awareness. “Kathy really opened the door for others to talk about and think about their own brain health,” Carrie said. “She was going through a difficult health challenge in the middle of a pandemic with uncertain outcomes and she chose to pay it forward, using her platform to educate and help others. It’s incredible and simply not something we often see in the brain health and brain injury realm, particularly in successful, high-performing CEOs like Kathy. There is always such a mystery around brain health and Kathy chose to swing the door wide open.”
Kathy said her own best habit is her ability to love unconditionally. Love led to her revelation of how to share her passion within the brain injury community. In September 2020, Kathy went to the Mayo Clinic for nerve testing, where nurses used pins to test the nerves of her face. She said she could tell by their expressions things weren’t going well. “I laid there thinking, I might not get total recovery or any recovery from where I am at right now. But what I do know is that it’s gonna be tough, and I have to learn to love myself for who I am now. There has to be a way to help others learn to love themselves for who they are now, and their family, their surrounding team, or whatever that looks like for them.”
Through her own brain health challenge, Kathy came to know the work and mission of nonprofits in the brain health community and found her place within the support community. “I probably never would have known about these organizations unless this happened to me,” she said. “The brain affects so much, and not everyone is as blessed as I am to search out and find different ways to help myself when days are tough. It can be addiction, depression, accident trauma, or disease and there are resources for people who might think they have hit a wall and can’t progress. They teach them so much.”
Her drive for awareness begins right at home with herself. Kathy admits she is “just at the beginning” of understanding more about the brain, and learned a few things she readily shares. “I think of the brain as the leader of the pack. That fascinates me …what it controls, what it does. Just think about learning a language or to walk. I look at the brain as the crown.”
That’s a crown Kathy feels doesn’t get enough attention. “You never see anything in lights about brain injury and recovery,” she said. “It flies under the radar, and there are so many great people involved and so many people deal with brain injury.”
Kathy said she recently reconnected with someone she hadn’t spoken with in many years only to find out she also experienced a brain injury. The injury occurred many years before they met and left her with significant memory loss. “I never knew,” Kathy said. “It was never a topic of conversation. But the brain … it’s our hub. The hub of the body.”
She comes by her positive outlook honestly. The youngest of five children born to Alice and Joe Colace, Kathy said her family raised her in an encouraging environment. “My father told us, ‘You wake up every morning, and you choose how to face your day.’ It’s the one thing we can control, and it was the foundation of how we were raised – loving and positive,” Kathy said. She describes her parents as having strong faith and being a strong team. “My husband and I have only been married five years, but that’s how Mom and Dad were, just a strong team. They started inspiring us kids and making us believe we could do anything without us even knowing it.”
This inspiration brought Kathy and her family through good and difficult days. She counts among her biggest challenges being a single mother at age 35 while running a household and building a company. “We were just keeping the wheels on the bus,” she said. She considers her greatest successes as “Being a parent and a stepparent, as well as my profession, but that is so minute compared to just living life and surviving the last year.”
Photo Credit: Jennica E. Maes