Atlanta, GA,
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Former Young Stroke Patient Wes Varda Shows His Gratitude to Shepherd Center for Giving Him Back his Life

Varda runs marathon to raise money for the hospital’s rehabilitation program for military service members.

Wes Varda of Atlanta used to believe that strokes only happened to senior citizens, not healthy 31-year-old men. He doesn’t anymore.

In December 2008, Wes had what doctors termed a “severe stroke” that nearly killed him. After two weeks in intensive care at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, he was transferred to Shepherd Center’s Young Stroke Program in the Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Unit. The program, which gives specialized care to young adults who have had a stroke, helped Wes relearn even the most basic tasks.

“I was like a baby, learning how to walk, talk and take care of myself again,” he recalled.

Two months later, Wes transitioned to the ABI day program at Shepherd Pathways in Decatur, Ga. Week after week, he worked to reacquire the skills needed to return to his job – and begin his new normal.

On July 4, 2009, Wes did something that a mere seven months earlier no one would have thought possible. He ran his third Peachtree Road Race, a 10-kilometer event.

“Running the Peachtree was validation,” he said. “I came into Shepherd on a gurney, and I left ready to go back to work and able to run.”

He was also ready to give back to the hospital he credits with giving him back his life. Right away he became a volunteer, visiting Shepherd Center once a week to serve as a greeter in the cafeteria.

“When I was a patient, I was eating dinner one night in the cafeteria and I struck up a conversation with a volunteer,” Wes recalled. “It turns out he was a former patient. He told me, ‘I was run over by a car, and I was worse off than you.’ I thought, if he can recover, I can recover. And if I do, I’m coming back as a volunteer.”

Earlier this month, Wes took that desire to give back to a new level. He ran the Georgia Marathon to support Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program for military service personnel who have sustained brain injuries and PTSD in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve never done any military service,” Wes said, “so I felt this was one way I could give back to our country and support those who serve. If they come back with an injury, they deserve the best care, and Shepherd Center has the best care.”

He set a goal of $10,000 but worried it was too ambitious. By spreading the word through a fundraising website and emailing all his friends and family, Wes blew past the goal, raising nearly $12,000.

 “It was very inspiring to work with Wes and an honor to provide him with help in his fundraising,” said Lauren Tucker, senior major and planned gifts officer in the Shepherd Center Foundation. “He is a champion here.”

Wes feels the same way about Shepherd Center. “Shepherd Center is the best place in the world,” he said. “The spirit at Shepherd is friendly and hopeful. And I think the logo is perfect – the hands are open, and everyone falls in. I can’t think of a better place to give back.”

Written by Sara Baxter
Photos Courtesy of Wes Varda

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neurological conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.