A Miracle Ten Years in the Making
Kathi knew what a concussion felt like — and she could tell, this one was going to be intense. What she didn’t realize as she lay there staring up at the Montana sky, was her life was about to become a living, sleepless nightmare.
It was January 2001 and life was good. Just a few weeks ago, Jerry Gregoire had proposed to Kathi and she had accepted. On staff with U.S. Missions Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, USA at Montana State University since 1996, she was a highly active woman who enjoyed hiking, skiing, camping, and any kind of outdoor adventures.
“Jerry was a professor — he had just left to teach a second semester in Morocco,” Kathi recalls. “The morning Jerry flew out, my friend, Pam, and I headed to the local ski hill for the annual ‘cheap skiing’ day.”
Pam Western and Kathi have been best of friends since meeting at a Chi Alpha retreat in 1995. They skied together frequently.
“I suggested we take a run that she hadn’t been on before,” Western says. “But I knew her capabilities and the run wasn’t any more difficult than anything else we had been on.”
As the women made their way down the slope, they started to notice icy patches, but simply skied round them — until Kathi missed seeing one.
“I remember falling backwards, seeing my feet and skis out in front of me, and thinking, Oh, this is going to hurt,” Kathi recalls. “And then my head slammed onto that ice patch.”
Kathi’s story — and life — should have ended right there. But she says that the Holy Spirit had spoken to her that summer, telling her before she goes skiing again, she needed to get a helmet.
“I thought that God was preparing to put me in a place to be able to share Jesus with the employee fitting me with the helmet or maybe a clerk,” she says. “I had no sense of doom. That day on the slopes was the first time I ever wore a helmet. If I hadn’t, I would have died.”
Western, who was slightly ahead on the slope, glanced back and came to a stop when she realized Kathi wasn’t there. A stranger then skied up to her and told her that Kathi had fallen and hit her head. He believed she was asking for her.
“At first, I was stunned, because Kathi had told me how God had told her to have a helmet,” Western says, “but I also knew that Kathi didn’t need another concussion [this was her fifth one].”
By the time Western got to Kathi’s side a few minutes later, she was already having problems with dizziness and struggled to answer simple questions. Soon she was going in and out of consciousness and, as is typical with more severe concussions, she started vomiting.
Western flagged down other skiers to get the ski patrol. Kathi was placed in a sled and taken down to an awaiting ambulance.
A concussion is caused by the brain impacting the interior of the skull at a rate great enough to damage the brain. If the impact is strong enough, the brain can start to bleed and swell — so the initial effects may seem mild, but symptoms can grow increasingly worse as the brain swells.
In today’s world, concussion protocol (what to do if someone is suspected of having a concussion) is something drilled into every athletic trainer and coach, from grade school to the pros. But in 2001, even doctors often took the wrong approach.
Kathi’s visit to the ER resulted in a doctor giving her ibuprofen and sending her home — telling her if the symptoms didn’t go away or got worse, to come back and see him in two days. It’s now known that ibuprofen and aspirin should not be given to a person with a concussion as they thin the blood and can cause a damaged brain to bleed even more.
When Jerry called that evening — en route to Morocco, but eager to speak to his fiancé — he learned of the accident from a friend caring for Kathi.
“Neither of us realized the full seriousness of her injury at the time,” he says.
When Kathi was taken back to the doctor two days later, complaining of continuing headaches and struggles sleeping, the care was the same — more ibuprofen and sent home.
As this was her fifth concussion, Kathi decided to bide her time and wait for the symptoms to go away as they had in the past. Only this time, the symptoms continued — some days better than others when it came to the headaches, but she was only able to sleep five to seven hours a week,
“The doctors told me that I hit my head so hard that my brain cells were damaged to the point that they couldn’t make the chemical for sleep,” Kathi explains. “I constantly had a headache that ranged from three to eight on a scale of one to 10. I was unable to fall into any kind of restorative sleep.”
The improper medical care combined with the initial injury to cause a host of problems for Kathi, many that are linked to extreme sleep deprivation.
“Extreme sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture,” observes Western. “Kathi’s symptoms weren’t just days or even weeks — she dealt with them for years.”
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Quality sleep — and getting enough of it at the right times — is as essential to survival as food and water. Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.”
The institute also states that sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body — brain, heart, lungs, metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance.
Somehow, Kathi was able to return to her duties with Chi Alpha, but within two months, she realized that her ability to read and write weren’t returning. There were also other signs of things being very wrong.
“I remember finding that I had put the milk in the cupboard, thinking it was the refrigerator,” she says. “Then one day I went to put some food back in the refrigerator and it wouldn’t fit. I couldn’t figure it out.”
Western recalls Kathi telling her about that day. “She suddenly realized that the right side of her refrigerator was packed with food items; the left side was completely empty.”
Even though the fall took place in 2001, Kathi says she recalls little from 1999 to 2003. In addition to not being able to read or write, she lost the motor skills to eat with a knife and fork and couldn’t walk a straight line. Her speech was also impaired, often stuttering or unable to recall the word needed, and her left hand curled and became mostly unusable.
Curtis and Delyn Cole, who were directors of the Chi Alpha at the University of Montana Western in Dillon while Kathi was at Montana State in Bozeman, came to know her through regular statewide Chi Alpha leadership gatherings.
“Prior to the skiing accident, she was a very vibrant person, always up for something exciting — she was energetic and adventuresome,” says Delyn Cole, a U.S. missionary. “After the accident, I didn’t see her until the day she got married [July 7, 2001]. “She was very different, slower in her responses, far less vibrant.”
At the time of her wedding, Kathi was experiencing migraine headaches and sleep-deprivation symptoms. Imagining the physical pain, mental fog, and the emotional frustration she was living in is nearly impossible. Yet, even with Kathi's disabling symptoms, Jerry chose to honor his proposal and marry her.
“I remember Kathi telling me that this [her condition] wasn’t what I signed up for, and that if I wanted out, she would understand,” Jerry says. “I told her, ‘I’m not marrying you for the things you could [and could no longer] do, I am marrying you, the person.”
Jerry had returned from Morocco the first week of June, with the wedding set for July. Following the wedding, the severity of Kathi’s suffering and disability became more evident to him. He realized that he was not only Kathi’s husband, but he also needed to be her guardian/protector and, in some ways, caretaker.
“I began to study her, learning when she was really beginning to struggle — she did a pretty good job hiding it — so I would know when to intervene in a conversation or if it was time to go home,” Jerry says.
TURNING TO MEDICATION
Two years after the wedding, still suffering with all the symptoms, but doing her best to continue to serve with Chi Alpha, Kathi’s doctor, a sleep specialist, prescribed her a relatively new and powerful drug — Xyrem — and later added Ambien.
Using prescription Ambien can lead to sleepwalking, sleep-driving, and is considered addictive — with withdrawals symptoms including seizures and/or delirium.
Xyrem, on the other hand, is so potent, that patients are required to take a class to learn how to manage it and to keep from accidentally killing themselves. It permits patients to at least get some sleep — though not always “sound” sleep — but it can also fatally depress the respiratory system and can lead to hallucinations and depression, among a host of other issues.
Kathi began using the medication in 2003 and that same year began to teach herself how to read again. It was a long, grueling process: learning words, then putting them together for sentences, and then on to paragraphs. Although she was starting to get some sleep — a few hours a night — it was still far less than what she needed and she still experienced occasional migraines, making learning to read again and remember that much more difficult. Sometimes Jerry became a target for her frustrations.
“There were days I didn’t know what to do, and I went to the Lord and told Him that He was going to have to help us, help me, through this,” Jerry says. “It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.”
Throughout these years, Kathi had communicated her need for healing to friends and colleagues and was herself praying for God’s touch on her life. In January 2004 came the first glimmer of hope.
“I went to the Chi Alpha SALT Conference that took place shortly after Christmas,” she recalls. “We were praying and, the only way I can describe it, it was like someone took a turkey baster and sucked something out of my head . . . from that point on, the chronic migraines were gone — I only had an occasional headache after that. It was the first miracle.”
For the next three years, Kathi struggled with her continuing sleep deprivation and its symptoms. In 2006, she finally had to step away from serving Chi Alpha — it was a difficult decision, but the ministry demands had understandably exceeded her abilities for some time by then.
Then the Holy Spirit issued a call on Kathi’s life that had her asking God, “Are you crazy?”
“At a women’s conference, God told me to go back to school and get my master’s degree,” she says, with disbelief still tinging her words. “You have to remember, by then I was only reading at maybe a high school level, my speech was slow and hesitant, and my short-term memory, due to the lack of sleep, fell in the ‘little to none’ range.”
Kathi broke down into tears — and it wouldn’t be the last time. Her plans prior to the skiing accident had been to earn her master’s, but now . . . it was nearly an impossible. This was crazy! What was God thinking?
God’s response to her valid objections to pursue her master’s degree was simple: “Kathi, before you would have done it in your strength; now you’re going to do it in Mine.”
GOING FOR A MASTER'S
After researching her options, Kathi chose Global University. But since her undergraduate degree was not in theology, she had to complete five prerequisite courses in order to qualify for the master’s program.
Knowing her memory limitations, she did what it took to be able to remember the material. “I would read my assignment, then re-read it, then read it out loud, then read it out loud while recording it, and then I listened to the recording three more times,” she says. “It took that much to get the information into my brain, but I kept at it, and in a year, I finished the first course [in 2007] and earned an A.”
After successfully completing the four additional prerequisite courses, it was time to move on to graduate work. The effort it took to study, comprehend, and retain the graduate material was herculean. “Many days I would start the day flat on the floor of my office crying out to the Lord, praying for the Lord to give me the strength to get through that day,” Kathi says.
She kept at it. Slowly, painfully progressing through the course work, with tears of frustration often working their way down her cheeks . . . that is, until the night of Nov. 4, 2011.
“I had had a few weeks of horrible sleep, and I was scared, as there was nothing stronger than Xyrem,” Kathi says. “I was getting ready for bed, when suddenly the Holy Spirit spoke to me — instead of taking the Xyrem, He directed me to take the less powerful pill — the Ambien. I was in close communication with my doctor and had the freedom to adjust my dose . . . so, I did.”
And she slept. She slept like she hadn’t been able to sleep in nearly a decade! Was it an anomaly? No, she kept sleeping, night after night — her mind became more alert, her ability to be active increased, she could feel her body healing after the years of incredible stress on her systems.
Western was the first to realize there was something different about Kathi.
“We were talking on the phone,” Western recalls, “and she was telling me about how she baked a cake and was doing all this stuff and how she had woken up this morning and had the sense that it was Christmas . . . this wasn’t a normal Kathi morning! So, I asked her what was going on . . . was she healed?”
Kathi affirmed her hopes, but asked Western to not share the news until more time had passed.
Later that month, when the Gregoires went to a sleep specialist appointment, Kathi brought the remaining Xyrem medication with her and told her the whole story of the healing.
After asking several questions, the doctor began to cry. “I’ve never known anybody using this medication that has ever gotten off of it because they no longer needed it,” Kathi recalls the doctor saying. “I’m going to monitor you for six months, but I think you’re done!”
Jerry and Kathi, who also wept in celebrating the healing, kept the news to themselves for a season. Then they invited all the friends who had been praying with them through the years, over for a party and shared the incredible news of Kathi's healing with them. “And now there’s 18 people at a party, bawling and praising the Lord,” Kathi says with a laugh.
“There was such a significant difference in her,” Delyn Cole says. “She reminds me of Moses with his staff . . . when we use what’s in our hand, no matter how small it may seem, God does the miraculous — that’s the picture of Kathi I have. God made a miracle of her life.”
Kathi says that for the next eight months her body craved sleep. Sometimes she slept 12 to 14 hours a day — not including naps — as her body recovered. But she also suddenly found her graduate studies were much easier to complete.
“Things went a lot faster after that,” says a joyful Kathi, who ended up graduating in June 2018 with honors. But not only did she graduate, she was also asked to be a speaker, representing all of the graduate students, at Global’s commencement ceremony held in Springfield, Missouri.
Through the entire trial, Kathi and Jerry attended Bozeman Christian Center (AG) where they have served as small group leaders and in various volunteer leadership positions, including each serving terms on the church board. Currently Kathi, who now is a chaplain for the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department, is a church deacon and Jerry, an engineer, is on the prayer team.
Western says Kathi is an inspiration to her. “You cannot ever give up hope or faith that God can heal,” she observes. “She so impressed me with how she walked through this with the Lord and didn’t succumb to self-pity or those kinds of things that people can go through in this kind of situation — instead, she kept her hope and faith in the Lord.”
Delyn Cole, who is still with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, found Kathi inspiring to the point of action.
“As I was watching Kathi giving her speech at graduation, I felt inspired to further my education,” Cole says. “I’ve been a licensed minister for 12 years, I’m now working to become an ordained minister.”
Kathi is quick to thank God for His provision. However, she has deep appreciation for one unique provision — Jerry.
“He proposed to a woman that he was going to go hunting with, camping, hiking, skiing with and he married a woman that could do none of those things,” she says. “He was so patient and so kind and took such good care of me that if we could bottle up what makes him who he is, to love his wife so well, it would change the world.”