Improving life after brain injury Need to talk? 0808 800 2244

Home About brain injury Individuals Brain injury and me

Give up, or focus trem...

Share your story with us to help others affected by brain injury

Give up, or focus tremendously on rehabilitation

Give up, or focus tremendously on rehabilitation

Man once given slim chance of survival set to run London Marathon for brain injury charity Headway.

A man who’s survived four strokes, sepsis and a cardiac arrest is running the London Marathon for UK charity Headway – the brain injury association.

In March 2020, Rolf Zartner, from Twickenham, was a highly successful investment banker who’d just received a big promotion. Happily married with a sixteen-year-old daughter at the time, Rolf was active, seemingly healthy and enjoyed a challenge.

However, that month, he decided to travel to a triathlon camp in Fuerteventura, which set in motion a life-changing course of events.

Rolf, now 50, recalled: “During the very end of my first swimming session, I made a very strong - and wrong - neck movement while sprinting ‘Butterfly.’ Pain shot up my jaw and neck, and I thought, ‘Great, muscle spasms on day one.’

At the time, I could not imagine that I had just dissected both of the carotid arteries in my neck, the major blood vessels that provide your brain's blood supply.”

Unaware of the extent of the serious damage he’d done and not wanting to give up, Rolf took some painkillers and pushed through his training.

However, when he returned to London a week later, the pain intensified. Rolf sought medical advice but said the doctor also put the pain down to muscle spasms.

But on the night of March 21, 2020, during the global Covid pandemic, the true extent of Rolf’s injuries became shockingly clear.

“I woke up around midnight with incredible pain in my head. The right side of my face had dropped, my right arm was without strength, and I had slurred speech,” said Rolf. “My wife called an ambulance. We had to wait 45 minutes because of Covid cases.”

Rolf said he is extremely grateful not only to his wife Hilde, but to his daughter Vivien Joline, who recommended he go to St George’s hospital in Tooting for treatment, having heard of its reputation for neurosurgery.

“She was the one who managed all the communication with the ambulance as well. I’m glad she was there,” he said.

A CT scan at the hospital found three blood clots in different areas of my brain, so I’d actually had three strokes.

The strokes meant Rolf had to undergo life-saving surgery, during which he had a fourth catastrophic stroke.

“Unfortunately, that stroke was the worst of all four and took out my breathing, which meant intubation,” said Rolf.

“A few weeks later, I spoke to the surgeon. He told me that he had to make a split-second decision to either paralyse my legs or take away part of my memory capacity. He decided on the latter. This left me with left-sided paralysis and in really bad shape overall, but my legs moved.

I was induced into a three-week coma and spent eight weeks in ICU. Sadly, I got sepsis, which caused two lung infections - not great when I was already on a ventilator.

Once I was able to speak to the doctors, they told me that my slim survival rate was just 2-5 per cent, with the outlook of remaining a lifelong nursing case. While still in shock, I decided to ignore this. I had two options: either give up and accept all limitations or focus tremendously on rehabilitation. The doctor also said that I would never be able to return to work.”

Determined to regain his independence, gruelling daily rehabilitation followed, including Rolf re-learning to walk and eat and re-learning some English words, as he is a German national with English as his second language.

But miraculously, within 11 months, Rolf defied the odds again and returned to work. He even ran a half marathon on the one-year anniversary of his injury and has recently delivered a Ted Talk on his experiences and the importance of never giving up.

In April, he will be taking on the London Marathon to help raise funds for Headway – the brain injury association. The charity provides guidance and support to brain injury survivors, their loved ones and professionals to help rebuild lives after brain injuries. Rolf has already raised nearly £16,000 for the charity ahead of the event.

“Many brain injury survivors have no financial resources to help fund therapies, but I was in a great spot,” said Rolf. “Raising money for Headway is close to my heart and will help support others.

I also want to raise awareness that as long as there are tiny improvements, then it’s worth fighting for. Consistency pays off, and I am living proof; don’t give up.

Support Rolf’s fundraiser for Headway – the brain injury association here.


Share this page

Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

© Copyright Headway 2024  -  Site designed and developed by MEDIAmaker