Tom Leonardis, 75, and Mark Sutton, 64, never knew each other, but they shared a common history: successful careers, loving wives and children, a passion for the game of golf — and a stroke that took away their voice.
Golf and intensive therapy at Austin Speech Labs helped both men begin to talk again and created a friendship in the therapy office and on the golf course.
Related: Austin Speech Labs helps people refind their words after stroke
Mark Sutton's stroke occurred in June 2013. He was in Nebraska golfing at the Sand Hills Golf Club when it happened. He felt the headache on the plane ride to Nebraska, but he didn't want to put off the golf game.
Wife Dayna Sutton explains, "He told the guys, 'My head really hurts.'" But when they asked him if he wanted to sit it out, he said no.
"Once they got to the third hole, they could tell by the way he hit the golf ball that something was wrong," she says.
They put him in a golf cart, someone gave him an aspirin, and they called 911. The nearest hospital was hours away.
Dayna Sutton remembers he was slurring his words when she talked to him on the phone. He remembers saying something was wrong and the trip to the hospital but not much more.
He was later taken by helicopter to a bigger hospital in Lincoln, where he stayed a week before coming home to do rehabilitation here.
Tom Leonardis was on the Onion Creek golf course in September 2016 when he noticed something was wrong. "I hit some shots," he says. "It didn't feel right."
A guy he was playing with followed him home, and when his wife, Rose, came into the room, she saw his face was drooping. She took him to the hospital. He had had two transient ischemic attacks and was in the hospital when he had the stroke.
After that, Rose Leonardis says, he didn't know anyone, or what had happened. "He was very upset," she says. "He wanted to go home."
"That sounds familiar," Dayna Sutton says.
"He would stand up and pack his bag," daughter Ashley Wright says of her father.
"We would unpack his suitcase," Dayna Sutton adds.
At first, Leonardis couldn't say anything, except he would tell a doctor or a nurse, "Thank you." It would come out perfectly clearly, "but if you ask him his name, he had no idea," Rose Leonardis says. "It was the strangest thing."
Leonardis went to rehab after the hospital for a few weeks and then went home. They both started doing daily, the several-times-a-week therapies at Austin Speech Labs that focuses on therapies for speaking, reading and writing following a stroke with individual and group sessions.
Leonardis still struggles with using the right words. Sometimes Rose Leonardis will look at him and say, "Really?" and then he knows that the words don't match the situation.
For Sutton, the stroke has changed the way he communicates. At first, he would say things that didn't make sense to his family. "He thought he was saying what was in his head, but it didn't make sense to us," Wright says.
All he could say was "nee, nee, nee" over and over again for about eight weeks, says Shilpa Shamapant, the co-founder of Austin Speech Labs. Then it changed to "one, one, one." After about two years, he was able to say "hi" and "I don't know."
Today, his family asks him a lot of questions, and he will answer them with things like "fine, fine," "yes" or "no." They've figured out that "I don't know" is a response when he's thinking about things. Sometimes "yes" might mean "no." They figure out things based on context.
"We do lots of charades," Dayna Sutton says.
His grandchildren have not known him as a talker, but the 6-year-old will introduce him with, "This is my Babboo. He don't talk, but we love him anyways," Wright says.
The stroke has affected his reading and writing and his text messaging, which is also only two-word answers.
He's still making progress. "He's saying more and more every day," Wright says.
"It's just hard," Dayna Sutton says, "It's gotten better."
Austin Speech Labs will see a patient for as long as they are making progress and has a sliding scale because insurance companies often have a fixed number of therapy sessions they will pay for.
Austin Speech Labs tries to find the words that interest the participant or that they might need to use in their lives. For Sutton, that meant terms that he uses in his financial services business, where he still makes all of the decisions. For Leonardis, who started a circuit board manufacturing company, which his sons now run, it was those relevant terms.
For both Sutton and Leonardis, golf was a thing to talk about.
Shamapant brought the two of them together.
"I hadn't played for a year," Leonardis says. "We started talking golf."
Golf terms came back quicker than other words for Sutton. The key "was to find something he was interested in," Dayna Sutton says. "It made it more interesting."
It also made their therapy progress. Shamapant says the difference is how deep someone needs to go into their brain to get the word out. "Golf was something Tom and Mark played, so quickly golf was at the top-most layer, if you think of the brain as layers," she says.
It takes many tries to process unfamiliar words, and some of those words just drop out. Think about the words you learned in a high school chemistry class. If you don't use them, they don't come easily.
Finding the right words and saying them is a process. "If you give them time, they can tell you," Shamapant says.
Talking golf and playing golf also helped them do something active, especially their first few years when speech therapy was happening multiple times a week.
"At least they could do something," Shamapant says.
Golf also has been a place that is socially accepting of them. At the club where Sutton is a member, they know he's had a stroke, and they see him and say hello, says Wright. "It encourages him," she says. Other places can feel more socially isolating.
One thing that's great about when Sutton and Leonardis are playing together is that "we can play 18 holes and nothing is said between us," Leonardis says.
"I know," Sutton says.
Their golf game is also how they can see progress. Leonardis calls his game "very poor," but Rose Leonardis says he's doing better and now is scoring in the 80s rather than the 100s.
"That's fine," Sutton says.
The stroke left Sutton with some weakness on his right side and with visual spatial awareness deficits that have made his golf game harder. He's gone from shooting high 60s or low 70s to a high 80s score. His brain doesn't tell him how hard he is hitting the ball. He's been working on that with a golf coach several times a week.
"He may be in the best shape of his life now," Wright says.
Golf is also a good exercise for them mentally, Rose Leonardis says. "He has to think about where to put the golf ball," she says.
When they last golfed together, Leonardis says, "I truly loved it."
"I see a change in Tom since he's been playing golf with Mark," Rose Leonardis says. "He's so happy. He and Mark are in the same shoes."
"They are two easygoing guys when it comes to golf," Rose Leonardis says.
No one can tell them how long recovery will take or how much more progress they will make, but Shamapant says they can continue to do speech therapy lessons as long as they want. "We will push them," she says.
It is intense, and after a session, Sutton will often go hit balls. "He needs to wind down," Dayna Sutton says.
All that golf playing has paid off.
In 2016, Sutton went back to Sand Hills, and on that same third hole where he experienced his stroke, he shot a hole in one.