A couple were both left partially paralysed within weeks of each other.
But Robin Thelander and Katheryn Abbatuan say a poignant note scrawled on a napkin by a stranger changed their lives and inspired their new business venture.
Investment professional Robin 35, and digital marketing expert Katheryn 30, were in Scandinavia in June 2019 when an older gentleman in a cafe wrote his theory of life on a serviette, which said: “Time, it is both the most valued and most wasted entity. Time is the most equal luxury possessed by all because we all have the same 24 hours in a day.”
Totally in love, with thriving careers and sharing a home in Paddington, west London, the couple simply saw their encounter with the stranger, who signed himself Oscar Fenston, as part of their holiday experience – never thinking his words would grow to mean so much.
But, just a month later, time took on a whole new meaning, when they were both left unable to walk, after Robin slipped, fell on his back and crushed a vertebra in seven places, only for Katheryn – who had been in and out of hospital the month before – to be diagnosed shortly afterwards with functional neurological disorder (FND) which affects the workings of the nervous system.
Katheryn, who still relies on crutches – while Robin can walk unaided but cannot take on rigorous exercise – said: “Sitting in hospital, not knowing how long I’d be in there for, it just felt as though time was passing me by.
“I realised how spot on Oscar had been about how precious time really is.”
Katheryn and Robin had their first dinner date in May 2017, after matching on the dating app, Bumble.
She said: “We had a really lovely dinner and spent the whole time laughing. Robin’s Swedish, but he’s got such a British sense of humour – he’s a dry as a slice of toast.”
After that, spending “practically every day” in each other’s company, in November they moved in together.
And for the next 20 months, they enjoyed an idyllic existence – only for their lives to be thrown into chaos in July 2019, when Katheryn started having severe lower back pain.
“I tried to shake it off and carry on, but the pain just got worse and worse,” she said. “It was all down my lower left side, from my back to my left leg.
“If I put any weight on my leg, it felt as though an electric shock was going through it. It was like really extreme pins and needles.”
Eventually, the pain became too intense to bear and Katheryn – who regularly played tennis and enjoyed yoga – was admitted to London’s University College Hospital (UCH).
After a series of tests and scans on her spine, baffled doctors could not make a diagnosis, so she was given painkillers and told she would continue treatment as an outpatient.
But, in late August, she was readmitted to UCH, saying: I was determined to try and live a normal life – even though I could barely walk – but one day I noticed my left leg had become red and swollen.
“I had to take my laces out of my trainers, because my foot wouldn’t fit in my shoe – it looked like it had been inflated,” she said. “I had to go back to hospital. It got to the point where I couldn’t really walk.”
An inpatient for six weeks, she had yet more scans and tests, but doctors were still unable to diagnose her.
“It was like a living nightmare – just a waiting game to find out what was wrong with me,” she said.
Then, with Katheryn stuck in hospital, in late August, Robin was helping a friend to move house when he had a freak accident.
He recalled: “I was carrying large boxes when I slipped on some spilt water and fell flat on my back. Right after, I stood up and went and lay down in bed, but about an hour later, when I tried to get back up I couldn’t.”
Taken by ambulance to north London’s Royal Free Hospital, Robin had several MRI scans, which detected part of one of his vertebra had been crushed into seven pieces.
“I was told I needed to lie flat on my back for at least two weeks to try and recover,” he said. “I wasn’t able to sit up or even have a pillow to prop me up – it was awful.”
Deeming it too risky to operate, doctors told Robin his best option was to let his back heal itself.
Discharged in September, he stayed at a friend’s house for six weeks, during which time he had to wear a back brace and was given physiotherapy.
While he recuperated, in mid-September, Katheryn was referred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Holborn, London.
“By this point, I wasn’t able to walk without crutches and needed a wheelchair a lot of the time,” she said. “My left foot was at a 90 degree angle and skewered inwards. It looked like a dead fish.
“I had no sensation in my left leg and doctors tried pricking me with a pin, but I still couldn’t feel a thing.”
Given a series of brain scans and nerve conduction tests, two weeks into her stay, Katheryn was diagnosed with FND – a condition with a wide range and combination of physical, sensory and cognitive symptoms, that can include functional limb weakness and paralysis, tremors and spasms, according to NORD, The National Organization for Rare Diseases. Most patients find their symptoms improve naturally with time, but no one can say for certain how long this may take.
“It was a relief to finally have a diagnosis, but even then, doctors couldn’t tell me what had caused it, if it would improve, or if I’d ever be able to walk properly again,” said Katheryn.
Frustrated, in October, she asked to be discharged and has since been taking pain medication, as well as having regular physiotherapy sessions and using crutches to help her walk.
And, finally reunited, the couple made a pact to turn their misfortunes into a positive – and started discussing the importance of time and Oscar Fenton’s wise words, written on the napkin, which they still have.
Katheryn, who has continued in her marketing role working from home, explained: “We experienced some of the darkest days of our lives, but we’ve always been determined to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“You never think at our age that you’ll suddenly lose the ability to walk and have to teach yourself to do it again. Nor do you think that your partner will have a freak accident that’ll leave him bedbound too.”
She continued: “Our lives were turned upside-down and I spent a long time being angry at the world. But, despite everything, we’ve always been determined to channel what we went through into a positive.”
So, the couple thought back to their trip to Sweden in June 2019 to visit Robin’s family, when they ended up killing time in Copenhagen, Denmark, after missing a plane home and went to a cafe in the city centre.
Robin said: “It was there that we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was sat outside smoking a cigar. He told us he’d been travelling for business and he sounded like he had such an interesting life, so we invited him to sit with us and have a glass of wine or three.”
He added: “We were all a little bit tipsy and the conversation became quite intense. He told us his name was Oscar Fenston, he’d recently been divorced and regretted not having a happy marriage or children.
“He started talking about the importance of time and how time is the most valued and most wasted entity.
“He also said time is the most equal luxury possessed by all, because we all have the same 24 hours in a day. We thought that was really poignant and asked him to write down what he’d said on a napkin.”
He added: “Shortly after that he left. We never asked for his contact details and never saw him again – but we kept the napkin.”
Now the couple are honouring the stranger and his poignant words, by giving his name to a watch brand they are launching on September 19 – marking their own awakening to the significance of time and each day in our lives.
Katheryn said: “One day we were reminiscing about Oscar’s inspiring words and it just made us think about how important time was – especially when, in life, you never know what’s around the corner. It seemed perfect that we should start a watch brand and name it after him.”
“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. There was a reason why we met Oscar just before this all happened, a reason he wrote that message about time on that napkin and a reason why it inspired us to launch a watch brand.
“I first had the idea during a physio session. I was thinking, ‘What symbolises the importance of time?’ Then it just hit me like a tonne of bricks – a watch!”
When she asked Robin if he would help her to launch a watch brand, he instantly agreed so she invested £5,000 from their savings and secured a start-up loan. The couple also secured £25,000 from an investor.
Robin said: “Katheryn wrote the business plan and I worked to secure the investment and to design the pieces for our collection.
“I love the 1920s style with Roman numerals, but I wanted to make the watches a little different. I decided to go for a Perlon-style strap – made from plaited synthetic material – which is pretty unique for 1920s-style watches.”
Describing Oscar Fenston watches as “a classic watch that celebrates strength of character in an understated manner,” priced at around £375, the couple also plan to donate a portion of their profits to Calmzone and a men’s mental health charity that campaigns against Living Miserably.
Robin said: “We’ve been through so much and we’ve come out the other side. We’ve both had to deal with the mental impact of these conditions, and we want to give something back to help others in a similar situation.”
As well as inspiring their new business venture, the couple say their ordeal has also made them closer.
Katheryn said: “It’s made my feelings for Robin so much stronger and, even more than before, it’s made me realise he’s the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Robin said the experience had also taught them both humility.
He said: “We’ve become so much more humble since everything happened. It’s taught us not only to cherish every moment, but it’s shown us the importance of time and that there’s always a silver lining somewhere.
“Our silver lining was Oscar Fenston. It’s so important that people find their own and remember that time is precious. Time is one thing you can never get back.”