ALPHARETTA, Ga. - At 37, Don and Siby Varghese are now almost on the other side of a story they never thought they'd be living.
"I think a lot of people fall into this category, where you think, 'I'm young, not me. That's not going to happen to me," Siby Varghese says.
But it can happen, Siby and Don now know.
Because it happened to Don, a young, seemingly healthy father of two young sons, living with sometimes dangerously high blood pressure.
He had no idea chronic hypertension could raise his risk of having a stroke.
"I told him, 'You should go to the doctor and get that checked out," his wife says. "But there was always things going on. When I look back on it now, I think, those are just excuses."
In December of 2015, Don couldn't put off the doctor any longer.
He was diagnosed with 3 cardiac blockages, and told he needed open heart surgery.
He was rolled into the operating room on December 10, 2015.
"We were at the waiting room, and they told us the surgery was successful, everything went well," Siby Varghese remembers.
But, the next morning, something was off when Siby and her sister-in-law came to visit Don at the hospital.
"We went to his bedside and we were making jokes, Hey, look at you in your hospital gown," Varghese remembers. "And, he kept responding the same word, 'Yellow."
At 35, Don Varghese had suffered a major stroke on the operating table.
"I remember just sitting there thinking, 'Oh, my god. Is this real," his wife says.
The stroke had caused widespread damage to the language areas of Don's brain, leaving him with a condition known as global aphasia.
Suddenly, Don Varghese couldn't speak, even to say his wife's name.
He also couldn't read or write.
Now, 18 months later, reading a children's book with son, Christian, words are still a struggle.
"I can't speak as much," Varghese says softly. "But I can hear everything you guys say."
The stroke changed everything.
For months Don couldn't work, or drive, or hold a conversation.
"All of a sudden, he wasn't just my husband, I had to be his caregiver," Siby Varghese says. "It's one thing when you're a caregiver to your child, but to your husband? In your 30's? It was, it still, is a challenge."
The couple had been so close, they could finish each other's sentences.
Now, basic communication was difficult.
"It was almost like I was playing a game of charades, constantly," Siby Varghese remembers. "I was, like, 'Are you talking about this? Are you talking about that person? You want this?'"
A doctor encouraged Siby Varghese to focus on the bigger picture, tracking her husband's progress in months, not days or weeks.
"And there were days where I thought, 'I know what my marriage vows were: in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and I'm like, 'Oh, my god, this is what this means," Siby Varghese says.
Slowly, Don Varghese is making real progress, working three times a week with Northside Forsyth speech therapist Tiffany McCusker, who is pushing him to write, and speak, in sentences.
"I'm getting better," he says. "Before I couldn't talk as much. But now I can finally talk."
Don and Siby Varghese says they knew nothing about stroke before it happened to them. And that's why they're sharing their story.
"So that you don't end up in our situation," Siby Varghese explains. "You don't go through this. Because you can't turn back the clock once you're there."
One of the best ways to protect yourself from stroke is to check your blood pressure regularly.
To recognize the warning signs of stroke, remember the acronym FAST.
- F: face drooping
- A: arm weakness
- S: speech difficulty
- T: time to call 9-1-1
To learn more about stroke, visit www.strokeassociation.org/strokemonth