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Defying the odds

When Rolf Zartner was given a slim chance of survival after four strokes, his determination not to be written off – coupled with his background in extreme fitness – saw him begin his punishing rehabilitation while still in his hospital bed. Here, Rolf shares his amazing story of survival, defying expectations and completing a half marathon exactly a year after his life lay in the balance

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When Rolf Zartner experienced three strokes in March last year, followed by a devastating fourth after life-saving surgery, he was given – at best – a five per cent chance of survival. 

But Rolf, a managing director at Deutsche Bank in London and lover of extreme fitness challenges, would not be written off so easily. 

From the point of him waking from more than three weeks in a coma, he resolved this would not be the reality for him, and began to plan for a future as full as his life was until March 21, 2020. 

And on March 21 this year – a year to the day that stroke struck – he ran a half-marathon, having pursued a punishing neurorehabilitation and training regime which begun even while he was still in hospital. 

“I knew they expected me to die, so that made me become very, very determined. I got out of my hospital bed and began to walk around the aisles on the ward, and then over the days and weeks, I started to jog. 

“I saw the doctor who felt I may not recover. I got out of bed and walked over to him – ‘Don’t write me off, doctor’, I said to him. He was amazed.

“And from when I got home, my training began again, gradually, but my determination since I woke from my coma has not decreased. 

“I know doctors say I’m a medical miracle, but for me, it was about setting targets and working towards them.”

It was while training for an Iron Man extreme fitness challenge – only shortly after securing a promotion at work – that Rolf sustained the injury that would lead to his strokes. While completing his swimming training in Fuerteventura on March 7, unbeknown to him at that time, he sustained a double artery dissection in his neck. 

“I swam 4,000 metres and sprinted the last part when my neck made a weird twist,” recalls Rolf. 

“I was in quite a bit of pain afterwards, particularly in my jaw, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. The pain became stronger in the two weeks afterwards, so I went to see my GP. 

“She didn’t recognise anything was seriously wrong, except a muscle spasm, and told me to take ibuprofen. But while I didn’t realise it, the clots had been building up, and that same night, 12 hours later, was when I had my strokes.”

Rolf’s wife was the first to know something was terribly wrong, after her husband woke during the night.

“She asked what was wrong and I said something, but she asked me to repeat it. I was slurring my words and she couldn’t understand what I was saying,” he recalls. 

“I was in much more pain and then realised I didn’t have feeling in my left side. She called an ambulance.” 

Rushed to St George’s Hospital in London from their Twickenham home, it was established that Rolf had experienced three strokes as a result of the dissection two weeks earlier. 

Having underwent surgery which was to save his life, Rolf then had a further stroke which caused complications through lung and kidney infections, which meant his outlook looked bleak. 

More than three weeks in a coma and eight weeks in intensive care took its toll on Rolf, to the point where thinking about the future was his only salvation. 

“I had my surgery two days before the UK went into lockdown and after that time I couldn’t see anyone. I wasn’t able to see my wife and daughter. It was very boring, very difficult being in hospital, and many weeks passed by somehow,” he says. 

“I woke from my coma like a toddler. I couldn’t do basic things like brush my teeth, it was shocking, my life had been turned upside down. 

“I didn’t really know what to do, so began to think about getting back to running. I began jogging while still on the hospital ward, but a week after I got home, my training began again. 

“While I had problems with my left shoulder, arm and hand, and they continue even now, I never had paralysis in my legs – so although it probably looked a bit funny, my ability to run was never hindered by what had happened. 

“A lot of effort went into my training, it was very important to me that I could do this. I started with 400 metres, then went to one kilometre, then three kilometres, then five, ten and finally the half marathon.”

But for Rolf, the accomplishment does not end there, and plans for the next stage of recovery are already in motion with him set to undergo stem cell therapy in Bratislava. 

“I was getting to the point where I thought ‘Should I stop here? Should I accept the recovery that I have made?’ But that’s not something I want to do,” he says. 

“From my body point of view, my hand hasn’t recovered although I have done well otherwise, but my brain is my concern. I have a job which needs a lot of brain input, and while I can live with how my hand is, I want to have the best possible chance of processing thoughts and facts. 

“I am very lucky that I am able financially to have stem cell therapy, so I thought why not? It’s a fact that 99 per cent of people who had an injury like I did are dead and because I survived, I want to do all I can. 

“I’m not allowed to swim anymore and can’t go to a higher altitude than 4,000m – which means no more mountain climbing, I have climbed Kilimanjaro before my strokes, but that can’t happen now – although that feels a small price to pay for the fact I am alive.” 

And while Rolf’s phenomenal determination has been key in getting him through the trauma of the past year, he credits the support of those around him as helping him to reach this point. 

“My wife has been amazing and I could not have got through this without her. She saw me in a coma when I was at the very bottom and has been there all the way,” says Rolf. 

“The bank have stood by me too, they have displayed role model behaviour. Of course you worry what will happen with your job, how can you afford a life in London if you no longer have that, but they supported me from the start, enabling me to do my job while also having time for therapy. 

“This past year has been very difficult, of course, but reminds me of how lucky I am in what I have and what I have overcome.” 

Rolf has been supported in his incredible recovery by the Neuro Rehab Practice, based in Teddington, with consultant neurophysiotherapist Richard Sealy overseeing his therapy sessions. 

“A key area of our focus together has been around his left arm,” says Richard. 

“Rolf’s neurophysiotherapy sessions have been based on reducing his left shoulder pain, increasing his arm range of motion and working on his hand dexterity.

“As a result of Rolf’s strokes, he presents with apraxia affecting his left arm combined with reduced sensation and attention towards his left side. He has difficulties with finding the correct movement patterns he needs to move objects around in his hand or to participate in some activities of daily living.

“The secondary consequences of apraxia can result in disuse of the affected area causing soft tissue shortening, weakness and overcompensation of his other arm.

“Rolf’s sessions involve rediscovering the appropriate movement patterns, by disrupting the reinforced abnormal established patterns and creating an errorless learning within his sessions. Task specific repetition has been a key focus using adapted constraint induced movement therapy (CIMT) that Rolf then practices intensively outside his therapy sessions.

“A significant challenge with apraxia is the frustration and therefore making sessions and activities as functionally relevant and interesting is a key to ’normalising’ Rolf’s hand/arm movements.

“We’ve used technologies such as The NeuroBall from Neurofenix, as well as more novel interventions such as solitaire, Lego, table tennis and many other functional activities.”

Rolf’s recovery has been of great motivation to the whole team at the Neuro Rehab Practice, says Richard, as well as the wider world via social media. 

“Throughout his sessions we’ve used film footage of Rolf’s progression as a way of reinforcing the realisation of the progression for him and, with Rolf’s permission, we’ve added these to our Instagram feed and publish them as #myfunctionalfriday, to encourage others with ideas of ways to try and engage functionally with their own affected arm in activities at home following a neurological diagnosis,” he adds. 

“Rolf’s return to running and motivational drive has been a key factor in his recovery as well as have a significant impact on us as a team. 

“One of our staff members was directly inspired by Rolf’s achievement with his running that they went from never running to gradually training and finally ran a half marathon on the same day that Rolf ran his.”

MS

“I found out I was pregnant shortly after my MS diagnosis”

It has been a whirlwind last few years for MS patient Annie, whose diagnosis, sparked from getting a fly stuck in her eye, came just weeks before her first pregnancy.

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MS diagnosis
Annie and her daughter Aubrey

A Multiple Sclerosis (MS) diagnosis is often a life changing event, with huge worries and concerns being overriding emotions for those who are told they have the condition.

This was exactly the case for 30-year-old Annie, who found out she had MS just weeks before she discovered she was pregnant with her first child.

For years she had been suffering with fatigue and tiredness, but despite spending hours doing her own research she could not work out what was causing it.

After numerous hospital visits, she was given a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, although Annie said she ‘never really felt like that was the correct diagnosis’ for her.

It would take a strange coincidence for her to eventually discover the problem, after she got a fly stuck in her eye in June 2020.

 

She experiences blurred vision for a few days following this, which led her to visit the options who referred her to John Radcliffe Hospital (JR) in Oxford.

An MRI scan was taken with doctors finally unveiling the MS, giving her the diagnosis a day later.

This would be a lot to take for most people, but Annie had an extra layer added to this shortly afterwards when she found out she was pregnant.

This led her to be concerned about what affect her diagnosis would have on her child.

“I did quite a bit of research myself and I spoke to my midwife,” she said. “I was also under care at the JR called Silver Star, which is for people with a high-risk pregnancy.

“I asked a lot of questions just really regarding my baby and if it would affect her in any way and I was reassured that there’s really a minimal chance that it can be passed on.

“That was my main concern but I also looked at if I would get more symptoms, but it seemed from the research and speaking to people that actually MS symptoms seem to stop when you’re pregnant because of your hormones.

“So I actually really enjoyed it, I had quite a nice pregnancy.”

Thankfully there were no issues during her pregnancy and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Aubrey in April.

However for this reason she did not want to start any form of treatment until after this and was worried that symptoms would start soon after.

Annie admitted her diagnosis was a shock as she did not know much about MS nor did she know anyone who had it.

However she was determined to not let it change anything.

“When I found out initially, that day was quite shocking,” Annie said. “But I’m quite a practical person so I just got on with it, that was where I was at.

“Since I’d had this for years and it’s not changed who I am or affected me massively, it’s just a thing I have.

“I didn’t want it to define who I was or be an excuse for not doing things. In the future it might be more of an issue and hold me back a little bit more, but at the moment it’s just one of those things that I can’t change.

“I’ve got so I might as well just live with it. I’ve told my close friends and family about my diagnosis, but I don’t feel like the world needs to know.”

Annie’s positive outlook is what has allowed her to continue her life to live her life and she has certainly not let it stop her doing anything.

She was midway through her Masters degree when she was given her diagnosis, but she managed to finish that and continues to work full-time as a human resources advisor.

This was challenging for her when it came to things like long periods of concentration or trying to view data, but as mentioned previously Annie never wanted MS to be an excuse for anything.

Currently she says she has not had many issues with the condition, saying the tiredness felt by many is something she is used to now.

However she has been receiving help from the MS Trust, which was her first destination when she wanted to learn more about it.

“I went to the MS Trust and the MS Society’s websites because that was the most reliable information.

“When I was first diagnosed I didn’t know anyone with MS so it was a good place to start some research and actually understand what it was and how it could affect me.

“After a diagnosis you might go online and look at a website that’s not hugely reliable and it’s always the worst case scenario that you read about.

“But things like its forums and having people that are actually going through the same stuff, it was good to look at.”

Looking to the future Annie says she would love to eventually give back to the MS Trust, suggesting she could attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a fundraising effort.

At the moment however she is just looking to live life normally.

Having just turned two months, Aubrey is healthy and has had no issues impacting her from her mother’s MS.

Annie confessed looking after her daughter keeps her busy but she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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Patient story

Getting back into sport after a stroke from head injury

Keen sportsman and fundraiser Graeme Cadas had a stroke after a head collision playing football, but efforts from his friend mean he can now continue his charity work

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Graeme Cadas enjoying a kick about

Greame Cadas from Hartlepool has had a passion for sport his entire life.

The 49-year-old has often put this love to good use as well, completing a number of fundraisers for a range of charities.

He raised £5,000 for the Denise Taylor cancer trust and Bradley Lowery by running up Ben Nevis twice in two days and also completed the Great Manchester Cycle.

One sport he particularly loves is football he had been playing for and helping run his local team Hartlepool TECH for a number of years.

However he could never have foreseen that this passion would lead him to one day have a stroke.

On Easter weekend in 2017, Graeme was playing for his beloved TECH when he collided heads with an opposition player.

He thought nothing of it as he claims he felt fine afterwards but it wasn’t until two days later that the effects of this would fully reveal themselves.

After enjoying a takeaway and a night in on the Sunday, he woke up on the Monday to make himself a cup of tea and go back to bed.

Not long afterwards his son Jack, who was 15 at the time, found him on the floor suffering a stroke and immediately called an ambulance.

Graeme says his memory is very blurred after this, with the next thing he can remember being waking up in hospital.

Doctors would later reveal that this was due to that innocuous head collision he suffered, much to his surprise.

“I didn’t even know I was having a stroke at the time,” Graeme said. “It was a complete shock when the doctor said it had come about from heading that person, I couldn’t believe it.

“The biggest shock was that I thought a stroke was just an old person’s injury or illness.”

From this Graeme had to undergo months of rehabilitation where he relearned to walk and talk but he had nothing but praise for the staff that helped him

“I was very lucky as to when it happened,” he said. “It was pre-COVID and the NHS staff and nurses were amazing.

“I had physios coming three times a week to my house. I lost about a year but they helped me do my own rehab which I still do to this day.”

Because the stroke occurred in the left side of his brain he can no longer fully use his right side but admits he is extremely lucky he didn’t lose his speech permanently.

For many this would stop them ever attempting sport again, but Graeme’s friend Mario did not want to let his enthusiasm go to waste.

He has now set up a fundraiser to get Graeme a specially designed left-handed trike that he can use to get out and resume exercising.

The device will cost around £4,000 with Graeme overwhelmed by the support he has received so far.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “People have been so generous it’s unbelievable, I can’t wait to get on it.”

As well as getting him active again Graeme is looking forward to using the trike to continue his fundraising efforts

This charity work is something that stays in the Cadas family, with his wife Amanda completing the Stroke Association’s Resolution Run alongside Jack in 2018 for the cause.

One thing his stroke has not stopped him doing is getting involved with Hartlepool TECH, which he now helps manage after stepping back from the pitch.

It only took Graeme three months to get back involved with the team and he said he was ‘delighted’ to jump at the chance of helping out again.

The club are now returning this favour with a race night to try and raise the last £500 he needs to purchase the trike.

Graeme constantly thanked those who helped him while speaking to NR Times, but admitted the person he owes the most to is his son who’s actions saved his life on that day four years ago.

To donate to his fundraiser and find out more, click here.

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MND

RAF veteran goes to great heights to fund MND research

Jumping out of a plane thousands of feet in the sky isn’t for everyone, but MND patient Lez Wainwright is putting this fear aside to give back to a cause that helped him.

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MND
Lez and his wife Anita

A former RAF serviceman with motor neurone disease (MND) is ticking one thing off his bucket list to raise money for charity as he completes a skydive.

51-year-old Lez Wainwright was diagnosed with the condition in February and began thinking about all the things he wanted to do in life.

One of these is a skydive and even though he had served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) for nine years, it is something he has never done before.

“After my diagnosis I decided to do a bucket list,” he said. “A skydive was one of the things I’ve always wanted to do.

“Originally I was too scared but I thought now is my chance to get it out the way with and get it done.”

Not only will Lez get the satisfaction of being able to tick this off his list, but it will also be used to help others by raising funds for the MND Association.

His two step daughters, Alice and Charlotte Parker, will also be taking part as they look to support the charity that was there for Lez.

He said the charity has been ‘very helpful’ since his diagnosis, being a contact to help him any time of day and even setting up a speech monitor for when he needs it.

Although Lez was diagnosed earlier this year he admitted he had been noticing symptoms from as early as 2019.

The first signs came when he began to rapidly lose weight. Then his legs began to give way which resulted in a number of long hospital visits for him last year.

Once he received his diagnosis he found himself stunned.

“I didn’t really know much about MND in the beginning,” Lez said. “My wife did, but it was a shock.

“When I was told it was a life changing illness it really shocked me and I became quite scared of it.”

Now Lez is looking to help others in a similar position to him by raising as much money as possible.

Initially the target was to collect £680, helping cover the cost of the skydive with the rest of the money going to the MND Association.

However the coverage his efforts have received mixed with the generosity of others means they have raised nearly £1800 so far, with Lez thrilled with how much it has taken off.

Although this extra funding is key he said that raising awareness about the condition is just as important.

“With awareness can come funding as it is all rolled into one. Currently there is not a lot of awareness about MND.

“It is getting better but funding is desperately needed and if I can raise even a single penny to help find a cure then I’m happy with that.”

The rest of Lez’s family are also chipping in with their own fundraising efforts, with his stepson-in-law competing in the Great North Run later this year for the same charity.

He spoke about how happy he was to see the efforts go ‘viral’ after a number of his friends also committed to helping raise money through their own charity runs.

As for the rest of Lez’s bucket list he is looking much closer to home, saying what is top of that for him now is spending quality time with his family.

To find out more and donate to Lez, click here.

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