Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

Opioids for Pain Management: The Other Side

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Bill Levinger about his journey and should not be taken as medical advice. You should always consult with a medical professional before starting any new or additional pain management regimen.

Kathy isn’t stopping for a pandemic or slowing down for her illness. Rather, she has taken on an additional role – that of advocate. As the first recipient of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s Woman of Courage award, Kathy plans to use her platform to encourage the importance of early diagnosis as well as awareness of brain injuries.

Kathy Laurinaitis: A Woman of Courage

By Ellen Fortini

Something surprising about Kathy Colace Laurinaitis, the managing partner of JBN & Associates recruiting firm and inaugural recipient of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s (BIAAZ) Woman of Courage Award is, she’s an unabashed 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. 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 has served her well in her personal life over the past two years. In June 2020, she underwent surgery to remove a blueberry-sized mass from her brain stem that was initially mistakenly diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy.

Kathy isn’t stopping for a pandemic or slowing down for her illness. Rather, she has taken on an additional role – that of advocate. As the first recipient of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s Woman of Courage award, Kathy plans to use her platform to encourage the importance of early diagnosis as well as awareness of brain injuries.

It all started on Super Bowl Sunday in 2020. Kathy and her husband, John Laurinaitis, had plans 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, it was cause for concern and she 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 following the missed Super Bowl party, Nicole urged Kathy to go to the doctor to get checked for the flu. 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, she FaceTimed her daughter Brianna, Nicole’s twin, who was also expecting a baby, to ask her if she thought the left side of her face was drooping. Brianna confirmed it did, noticeably on the left side of Kathy’s mouth.

Nicole and Brianna are well known to audiences as Nikki Bella and Brie Bella—WWE Divas and stars of the E! reality shows Total Divas and Total Bellas. Kathy herself has been 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 she and Maya arrived at the urgent care clinic for her scheduled appointment, the doctor told them Kathy couldn’t be treated there and she had to go to a hospital. Unable to rule out a possible stroke, the treatment that Kathy would need to reverse it 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 in the past she’d had cold sores and shingles, caused by the virus that has been linked to Bell’s Palsy.

Kathy says though she wasn’t feeling as bad as the day before, and wasn’t as dizzy, the doctors at Mayo still wanted to do an MRI. However, due to scheduling, it would have to be scheduled several months out. They let her know if she wanted to do it earlier, to keep calling in case of a cancellation. So in the meantime, Kathy began acupuncture treatments and was 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 said no, and that she was feeling almost completely healed. Her face was nearly back to normal, and in fact, while filming Total Bellas, the production crew commented they could hardly tell she had Bell’s Palsy.

In early June, the active grandmother of five was out for a run when she suddenly felt nauseous. “I felt like I wasn’t even going to get home,” she admits. She did manage to get home safely and laid down, putting her legs up to get her circulation going better. “Ten minutes later, I was fine,” she says, chalking it up to exercise-related discomfort.

She began researching more on Bell’s Palsy and she learned that most recovery happens between two weeks and six months, and that five percent of patients never recover. For Kathy, nearly five months after her initial symptoms, this information was discouraging. Despite feeling well, she says, “It never crossed my mind that something else was wrong.”

Then on Father’s Day, Kathy began feeling 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 where crew members recommended she go in to be seen. The following day, her walk was off-balance, and John insisted they go in immediately. While John was being 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 7:00 p.m., a neurologist walked into the room and 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.” What the doctor was saying, Kathy couldn’t make out beyond, “We found…” It was a mass on her brain stem the size of a blueberry. “Is it a tumor or is it cancer?” she wondered. They explained that 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 that surgery was necessary. At this point, Kathy recalls, COVID was at a spike, and both Nicole and Brianna were due to give birth within the month. Dr. Bendok asked if she wanted to delay the surgery until after the babies were born. “John asked him what he would do,” Kathy says, “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 actually include it in the show to help raise awareness of brain health. “Total Bellas did not ask me to showcase this,” Kathy says. “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 about their mom’s surgery. Kathy says part of that included her own post-surgery fear of “Am I even going to be here?”

“We’re a blended family,” Kathy explains, “so I wanted to make sure 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.”

On June 30, 2020, what was expected to be an eight-hour surgery ended up lasting 14 instead. Dr. Bendok discovered Kathy’s facial paralysis was caused by the mass in her brain hemorrhaging. “He told my husband, one more hemorrhage and it would have been fatal,” Kathy emphasizes. “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.”

Remarkably, Kathy was released two days later and was able to return home, where John lovingly became her full-time caregiver. As the general manager of talent for the WWE, John, whom Kathy 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 says. “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 shares.

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 moment Kathy and John met the babies was also captured in a touching scene on Total Bellas.

Kathy has experienced double vision since the surgery and takes part in therapy for her eyesight. She didn’t drive for six months but is now able to again with use of an eye patch. She has had two eye surgeries because her left eye wouldn’t close all the way. In September 2020, a titanium weight was placed 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 remembers.

In February 2021, she had another surgery with the titanium weight to help her eyes to blink. She still does 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 believes. She says she was told to expect a 30-40 percent chance of full recovery from the facial paralysis in the first year, but she thinks it 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 says.

Originally from Imperial Valley in southern California, Kathy’s parents moved to Phoenix when she was a teenager, and Kathy followed them there. She had Nicole and Brianna when she was 19, so being around her parents was a help. But when her parents returned to California several years later, Kathy remained in Phoenix, making it her home. With the addition of her son, JJ Garcia, when she was 21, her family was complete.

Kathy recalls how she got into her field. “I was working for a land developer and a friend got into recruiting and basically said ‘you should do this’, and that is how it all started. I never considered myself a salesperson, but I have naturally always built relationships.”

After a few years in recruiting and becoming passionate about the industry and her ability to network and connect people, Kathy had the opportunity to start her own firm. She opened JBN & Associates in 1999, with each initial coming from her own children’s names. It began as a staffing company only doing placement in Arizona, but has grown into a boutique executive search firm serving North America with a team of six at remote locations in Arizona, California, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Kathy says she travels a lot and “The beauty of our business is that we can be anywhere.”

The company recruits in all areas of expertise, but is widely known in land development, construction, home building, foods and manufacturing, and e-commerce. She explains she and her associates find and place candidates at all levels of organizations, including management, sales and marketing, accounting and finance, as well as the executive-level C-suite.

As it did for most business owners, the pandemic brought changes to the industry, though not necessarily bad ones. “We’re seeing more and more that Covid was a heavy hand for companies to go remote,” she says. “And with that, a lot are staying remote, or hiring remote. Because we place across North America, since Covid, I see my clients more than I ever have.”

Kathy isn’t stopping for a pandemic or slowing down for her illness. Rather, she has taken on an additional role – that of advocate. As the first recipient of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s Woman of Courage award, Kathy plans to use her platform to encourage the importance of early diagnosis as well as awareness of brain injuries. “My message is, don’t be me. Get the MRI. I stopped calling because I was getting results from acupuncture. But both relapses were hemorrhages.”

She also plans to continue publicly promoting awareness of brain issues, as she did on Total Bellas. “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.”

She is also quick to give credit to her caregivers, namely John. “Recovery is the team that surrounds you,” she says. “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 [the Brain Injury Alliance] is so important.”

Carrie Collins-Fadell, CEO of the Brain Injury Alliance, says 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 says. “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.”

The Brain Injury Alliance offers free programs, education, resources, and peer support for those seeking to live well after brain injury. “We are there with families throughout every point of the journey after a brain injury,” Carrie says. “For years to come, as someone transitions out of the hospital and back to work or school and then ages with a brain injury, we’re there. We also work to support the families and caregivers, as well as provide continuing education for professionals.”

Kathy says finding out she had received the award from the Brain Injury Alliance made her emotional. “There are so many others more deserving than me, and it’s challenging for me personally, but I am so honored and I feel a responsibility to help others,” she says. When it came time to do the photo shoot for the award, Kathy admits she struggled with seeing the images.

“It was such a tough day for me. I had my hair and makeup done, and I know the photographer well, and I was shocked at how emotional it was for me. I look at the pictures and it’s still hard for me to say, ‘That’s me’. You want to be brave and have this shield of armor on and that’s the tough side, but the other side is being part of a team of people that are experiencing the same thing,” she attests. “This Woman of Courage award is for representing a group of people, not just for me.”

Kathy says her own best habit is her ability to love unconditionally. And love is what led to her revelation of how to share her passion within the brain injury community. In September 2020, Kathy was at the Mayo Clinic for nerve testing, with nurses using pins to test the nerves of her face. She says she could tell by their expressions that 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 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 learned about the work and mission of the Brain Injury Alliance and has since found her place within the support community. “The Alliance has resources for people who might think they have hit a wall and can’t progress,” she informs. “You never see anything in lights about brain injury and recovery. It flies under the radar. I probably never would have known about the organization unless [my brain injury] happened to me.” Now that she does, she’s determined to share with as many people as possible about the hope and help available to them on their post-injury roads to recovery.

With her admirable dedication and drive to bring awareness to the “invisible disability” of brain injury and share her story far and wide, Kathy Colace Laurinaitis is the definition of a woman of courage. To her, “Courage is fighting the fight…it’s the little things, small simple things, and getting them done.”

Ever humble, Kathy feels she should be giving the Woman of Courage award to someone else, but when she accepts it at the Brain Injury Alliance’s Brainiac Bash Soiree to Support Brain Health in January 2022, she intends to do so “with all the gratitude in the world.”

*Ellen Fortini is a globetrotting writer, editor, and public relations professional. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.


The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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