For over 20 years, Professor Udo Kischka enjoyed an extensive career in neurology, and has been a loyal supporter of Headway Oxfordshire, a charity that supports brain injury survivors and their loved ones.
But when he suffered a stroke himself in 2016, he discovered he 'knew nothing' about brain injury.
His unwavering dedication to supporting survivors has seen him named as one of three finalists for Headway - the brain injury association's Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway Award, sponsored by No5 Barristers Chambers.
In 2004, while working as a Neuro Rehabilitation Consultant at the Oxford Centre of Enablement (OCE), Udo became increasingly aware of the lack of support available for some brain injury survivors once they were discharged from hospital, with some patients and carers describing it as being “dropped off a cliff."
Having heard about the work of Headway Oxfordshire Udo got in touch and was so impressed with the charity's work, he volunteered to join its Board of Trustees.
Udo spent the next 12 years working to create a closer collaboration between the OCE and Headway Oxfordshire, so that survivors who left hospital didn't miss out on the opportunity to receive community based support from Headway.
"The NHS is a great institution but it's underfunded and understaffed," said Udo. "I felt we couldn't do everything that was needed to help brain injury survivors, and we needed the support of community based organisations like Headway Oxfordshire to stop some people from falling through the gaps when they were discharged."
The professor's work hugely improved patients' transition from hospital to community support services, and as a result, their life after brain injury.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Udo’s life changed immeasurably in 2016.
As he ran to catch the last train home, he felt a terrible pain in the right side of his head and some weakness in his left arm and leg. He immediately diagnosed himself as having had a stroke.
"Theoretically, I knew I should seek medical attention but I didn't," he said. "Because of the bleed in my brain I felt unnaturally calm. If that happened to someone else I would tell them to go to hospital straight away.
"It's difficult looking back on that. It wasn't clever, but that's what my brain injury did to me."
Udo didn't tell his wife Helen about what happened, and carried on working at his desk and slipped into unconsciousness in the early hours of the morning.
He came round lying on the floor of his study, with no memory of falling and unable to move the left side of his body.
“It was truly terrifying," he said. "I couldn’t move and couldn’t shout out."
The professor's wife found him some hours later and he was rushed to John Radcliffe hospital.
When Udo regained consciousness, he told Helen that their lives had changed forever.
For the next nine months of rehabilitation and recovery, Udo was cared for in hospital by his colleagues, some of whom were his very close friends.
"It was a strange experience," he said. "I was embarrassed and emotional on the one hand but so reassured and impressed by their professionalism and care on the other. I knew I couldn't be in better hands.
"Because my stroke was so severe, I received a great deal of high quality rehabilitation from my colleagues in good time, which made a huge difference to my progress. Not everyone across the country is as lucky when it comes to accessing rehabilitation."
When he was discharged from hospital, Udo became involved with Headway Oxfordshire once more, but this time, as a service user.
The intensive level of rehabilitation that he had received in the OCE was just not available from the NHS and Social Services once he was discharged, and like many patients he was aware of the need to look to other organisations for additional support. Headway Oxfordshire became a valued resource for him following a visit from one of their Community Support Workers.
"That meeting provided us with practical help but also changed my outlook," said Udo. "Emma encouraged me to share my unique experience as a professional and a survivor with Headway’s staff and service users. In the early days following discharge this gave me a tangible sense of purpose."
Throughout his own treatment and recovery, Udo developed a far deeper personal and professional understanding of stroke rehabilitation and he became more determined than ever to improve the patient experience for others.
Now Udo and Helen deliver a moving and insightful presentation to medical and care professionals, carers groups and the public, to improve knowledge and understanding of the effects of brain injury.
"It was during my recovery that I became a REAL stroke specialist," he said.
"I want people to know that one can work in the field of brain injury for decades and yet not fully understand what survivors are going through.
"If I could return to my work I would 'appreciate' my patients differently now. You need to ask the patient how it feels for them, don't just assume that you know because you read it in a book. It's not enough.”
Udo also learnt that it's not only survivors whose lives are turned upside down by brain injury, but their loved ones.
"When I had my stroke my daughter and son were 14 and 16, and preparing for their A-levels and GCSEs. For them it was a terrible shock to see their father so helpless.
"Theoretically, I had always known it would affect families, but seeing the impact it had on own my children, and still does, really brought it home. It has been so encouraging to see how Headway involves the whole family, not just the patient, in longer term care. "
Jamie Miller, Chief Executive of Headway Oxfordshire, said: "His focus on improving the lives of others is genuine and tireless, despite his own daily challenges.
"His personal tragedy has only gone to strengthen his resolve to make a difference to those around him and his community.
"Udo is a delightful, kind person who strives for others and he thoroughly deserves some recognition for his extraordinary efforts and good work."
Each year, the Headway Annual Awards celebrate the exceptional efforts of survivors of brain injury and their carers.
Udo will find out whether he will win the Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway Award, sponsored by No5 Barristers Chambers, at a glittering ceremony at The Dorchester Hotel, London, on Friday, 7 December.
"I'm really chuffed to be shortlisted," said Udo. "I've been working with Headway for so many years so it really means a lot."
Awards for Achiever, Carer and Volunteer of the Year will also be presented.Back