First Comes Love Then Comes Coma? The Amazing Real-Life Romance of the Couple Behind 'The Big Sick'

How a medically induced coma translated into an epic love story for The Big Sick's writers

Falling into a coma and waking up with a loving boyfriend by your side sounds like the perfect fantastical romantic comedy — except it actually happened.

At the start of their relationship, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon had no idea they’d be married eight months later. But everything changed when Gordon fell inexplicably sick and was put into a medically induced coma. After being diagnosed with Still’s disease, a rare systemic autoinflammatory disorder that can shut down major organs if left untreated, Gordon woke up — and Nanjiani was ready to marry her.

Ten years later, the hilarious duo is bringing their hard-to-believe love story to the big screen in The Big Sick — a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy starring the Silicon Valley actor as a version of himself, with Zoe Kazan as Gordon and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as her parents. Now in limited release, it’s winning rave reviews, and nabbed audience awards at the Nantucket Film Festival and SXSW. The movie opens nationwide on July 14.

"The Big Sick" New York Premiere
Jim Spellman/WireImage

The Big Sick cast, with director Michael Showalter, at the New York premiere

While the two were in step throughout most of the writing, they told PEOPLE at the New York premiere of the film that they differed on one thing — Gordon was much more concerned about putting their private love story out for the world to see.

“I’m maybe a bit more private than Kumail so I was definitely like, ‘Oh s—, if all this goes great, I’m gonna be on a red carpet being like, and yes, I was in a coma!’ ” Gordon joked. “That’s kind of a weird thing but hopefully the benefits of it can outweigh the weirdness of it — cause it definitely is weird.”

Maarten de Boer

Nanjiani, 39, on the other hand, admits that Gordon, 38, was right and he “should’ve been” concerned, but the politically outspoken actor is glad that a movie about two different worlds coming together peacefully is premiering in such heightened times. “It is a version of showing that people from different backgrounds can get along,” he told PEOPLE. “I’m glad that it’s coming out now.”


Nanjiani with Kazan as Gordon

Nanjiani and Gordon first met in Chicago in 2006 when Gordon heckled Nanjiani’s stand-up set and later refused to go out with him. Though she eventually texted him to casually meet up, the couple started seeing each other more often and dealt with the pressures of Nanjiani’s family without visualizing a future together.

The Pakistani-born Nanjiani’s parents wanted him to enter into an arranged marriage, meaning they wouldn’t approve of Gordon and the two struggled as Gordon respected his family’s traditions. They continued dating in secret until eight months into their relationship when Gordon ended up in the emergency room needing to be put in an induced coma to stabilize her symptoms.

That’s when their relationship went into overdrive. Unlike in the movie, the two didn’t break up before Gordon’s coma and Nanjiani was by her side through the scary eight-day ordeal — along with her parents, whom he had only briefly met once.

RELATED VIDEO: The Amazing Real-Life Story of the Couple Behind ‘The Big Sick’

But Gordon being in a coma put things into perspective for the stand-up comedian, and he realized it was time to tell his parents about his girlfriend. Luckily for him, they couldn’t be too angry while Gordon was still in a life-threatening situation.

“They were very concerned about Emily’s health,” Nanjiani told USA Today. “When she got better, they were like, ‘Why did you do this to us?!’ ”

Their relationship took off from there, and the two were married just two months after Gordon woke up in a secret ceremony at Chicago’s City Hall. Gordon finally met the entire Nanjiani clan shortly after when the couple had a traditional Pakistani-style wedding with his whole family — proving that the therapist-turned-writer was here to stay.

Years later, after several conversations, the two decided to bring their love story to the screen and started workshopping the idea in 2012.

Photos By Denise Truscello

As for Gordon’s battle with Still’s disease, the couple said that they have to be cautious to prevent flare-ups. They manage it by doing things like planning around Gordon’s travel and knowing that she will need a couple days’ rest after a trip.

Gordon explained that the best way to treat it has been to take it seriously and give herself time to get better when she starts feeling sick.

“It’s fevers — it’s a very intense, kind of just awful, feeling,” she recently told PEOPLE about the symptoms. “And then if I don’t stop everything I’m doing then I can get much more sick. So, then if it’s more then I just have to kind of stop and let it leave.”

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But after years of living with the condition, Gordon has gotten better at handling it — and is feeling great.

“Over 10 years, I’ve gotten the good sense of how to deal with it,” she said. “But then I just started this new treatment about four months ago that’s been amazing. It’s been really good for the press for this movie too, because now I have the ability to do everything.”

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