By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney

A TEEN model has beaten the odds and has relearned to walk and talk after surviving a stroke age 12

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VIDEOGRAPHER / DIRECTOR: MARCUS HESSENBERG
PRODUCER: NATHALIE BONNEY, RUBY COOTE
EDITOR: SONIA ESTAL

Growing up with three older sisters, Rafi Solaiman was the typical younger brother: full of energy and enthusiasm he would run around the house, play sports in the garden and do whatever he could to wind up his siblings. 

All of that changed when aged 12, Rafi suffered a stroke and brain haemorrhage so severe it left his body in locked in syndrome.

Rafi had to learn how to walk, talk - and even blink again. Now 18 years old, while Rafi is still affected by the stroke, he has an exciting future ahead of him. 

In 2017 he was spotted by modeling agency Zebedee Management and he hopes to represent his country in RaceRunning if the sport makes it into the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

Rafi told Barcroft TV: “I never thought I’d do this much really. I thought it’d take a lot longer than it has [to recover]. I’m pretty shocked to be honest.

“I think I’m quite driven to do things and I think that’s partly what has made me improve me so much.”

In fact Rafi, who lives in Worksop with his mum Jackie and sister Nina, thinks it’s because of his stroke he has grown in confidence and had so many exciting opportunities.

“I think it’s affected my confidence in a positive way actually because I was quite a shy little 12-year-old back then and I’m 18 now and I’m quite a confident young chap,” he said. 

Rafi is still affected by the stroke – he uses a walker to get around; his speech is slightly slurred and he has both short and long term memory loss, barely remembering anything from when he had the stroke.

He said: “I remember collapsing on the sofa.”

Mum Jackie remembers the day of Rafi’s stroke, starting off like any other day.

She said: “It was just a normal day. I had taken the dog for a walk, got back. It was a nice day. I was out in the garden, hanging out the washing. Rafi who had been here with one of his sisters. He came outside and said that he had got a headache and he felt sick.”

After being sick, Rafi told his mum that there was a bug going round school and Jackie felt relieved but then Rafi complained of a banging headache and dizziness, before collapsing on the sofa.

Jackie said: “It was like, one minute everything was fine, the next minute it was not.

“By the time we got to the hospital, they were doing CPR on him.”

Rafi stabilised and doctors told his parents that he had had a major haemorrhage and would need a craniotomy, where a bone flap from the skull is removed to get to the brain underneath, to understand the cause of Rafi’s stroke.  

Medical staff discovered that Rafi had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the brain – where the blood vessels are not fully formed, or in effect tangled, which could cause a weakness that could burst at any time.

The operation lasted six hours, with the whole family nervously waiting for Rafi to come around. In spite of the doctors’ hopes, Rafi was barely responsive and his family feared the worst when, days later, he suffered a second stroke – something doctors only gave a one percent chance of happening.  

Jackie said: “There was blood over the pillow because he had got a drain in his head, and it was all coming out of his drain.

“They told me that there would be a one percent chance that would happen but it did. And they also told me if had another bleeding, he wouldn’t survive. 

“Obviously, it was really devastating. He couldn’t communicate, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t eat. I think after about a week following his stroke, we were told that he was locked-in; that the front of the brain was all damaged and so he would be able to hear and understand what was going on but wouldn’t be able to communicate.”

Having to re-learn how to do the most basic tasks, one of the first things Rafi learnt again was how to blink.

Jackie said: “The blinking game was his first interaction with his sisters. They blinked, he blinked back and it was amazing.”

Slowly though, Rafi made progress, defying the odds.

Rafi said: “After the stroke, I don’t think I could even do one step for about five or six months, so it took me ages to relearn to walk and my speech kind of got a bit worse, I used to have quite a clear voice when I was younger and it has gone a lot, slower and it has changed a lot from what it was.

“My eye sight was perfect and then after my brain injury one eye was straight and one eye was drifting to the middle so in 2016 I had to get that operated on.” 

Over time Rafi has progressed from using a wheelchair to a walker and at home what he calls “wall walking.”

And after completing courses in media and tourism at college, Rafi is dedicating at least the next year to pursuing his modeling and race running dreams.

After responding to an advert asking for models with disabilities, Rafi first started modelling five years after his collapse – and he still loves the buzz of being on a photoshoot.

He said: “When I have my photo taken I feel alive and when I go to a shoot I am looking forward to it

“Modelling has helped my confidence in a lot of ways, for example I have met so many different people that I would never have approached if I hadn’t started modelling.”

The up and coming model is also ranked number three in the world for Race Running, an adaptive sport where competitors use a three-wheeled frame to race.

“Race running is, fingers crossed, hopefully gonna be a Paralympic spot in 2024 in Paris so fingers crossed I’ll be competing for that.”

As well as his physical recovery, friends and family are impressed with the mental recovery Rafi has made and the mature, confident – but also funny young man he has become.

Jackie said: “The Rafi that he has turned into has a lot more confidence. He was quite shy before and he is not so shy anymore and I think that’s to do with the stroke. I think that just changed that part of him.

"I think he is more loving than he was before and he got his silliness back that’s for sure."