FARMINGTON — Stroke victims Harry "Sonny" Franklin and Gary Willmart want people to become more educated about the early signs of a stroke because that knowledge could help them avoid suffering their fate.

Former President George H.W. Bush designated May as National Stroke Awareness Month in 1989 to increase public awareness about the health condition. That knowledge could prevent strokes and early detection can help people avoid death and permanent disabilities.

Willmart suffered an "ischemic stroke" in January 2001 and after a phone call to his then-fiance Barbara, ended up at San Juan Regional Medical Center 12 hours later.

Franklin was suffering unexplained headaches in November 2005 and upon returning home after a day's work at Tsé Bit'a'í Middle School in Shiprock where he was principal, he lay down on his bed and suffered the stroke.

"I thought I was having a sinus issue and I kept having headaches and nausea in the days before," Franklin said. "I had gone into work that morning and I was feeling well."

According to a National Stroke Association press release, about 795,000 people in the United States will have a stroke this year. It says strokes kill twice as many women each year as breast cancer.

Dr. Eric Ketcham, San Juan Regional Medical Center's Stroke Committee chairman and emergency room medical director, said identifying the early signs of a stroke could save a patient's life.

The hospital is a certified Primary Stroke Center and works to educate the community about risk factors and warning signs of stroke, he said.

"What we would like the public to know is it's really important (with) certain neurological symptoms, they need to seek help right away," Ketcham said.

Ketcham said a method called FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) will help people quickly identify stroke symptoms by asking those potentially having a stroke to smile, raise both arms and repeat a simple phrase.

People having issues moving their face, arms or slurring their speech should seek medical care as it could be a sign of a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or a mini-stroke. If one side of a person's face is drooping, it could also be a possible sign of a stroke.

"If they are actively having symptoms, the key is not to wait very long but get to the hospital right away," Ketcham said. "We have the ability to intervene and potentially reverse those symptoms if we get them to the hospital."

Both Franklin and Willmart suffered ischemic strokes on the right side of their brains, paralyzing the left side of their bodies, including their arms, legs and the left side of their faces.

If Franklin and Willmart had been more aware of the signs of a stroke, the damage could have been limited or avoided.

"I've learned that I had to adapt," Willmart said. "A stroke is a major life-changing event and you have to come to the understanding you're never going to fully recover 100 percent.

"I look at it this way. I could have died but I was given a second chance and I'm not going to waste it. If I can help other people avoid the same things, I'm more than happy to do that."

Franklin said the biggest burden for him following his stroke was not being able to be independent anymore and being more dependent on his family.

"Listen to your body. When things aren't right, it's telling you something is wrong," Franklin said. "Listen to it and do something about it. If I had done that, I probably would have been OK."

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @jkelloggdt.