Vet seeking dog

  • Shawn Hiers of Peterborough with three of his four children, Zoe Hiers, 12, Kailyn Hiers, 7, and Lorelei Hiers, 3.  Staff photo by Ashley Saari

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, July 20, 2017

In 2012, Shawn Hiers, 43, of Peterborough, was working as a machine operator at New Hampshire Ball Bearings, and was on break when he fell and struck his head on concrete and suffered a traumatic brain injury. 

“Both feet just went out from underneath me. At first, we didn’t know what had happened,” said Hiers. “First, they thought it was a concussion. Then post-concussion syndrome. It took eight months to be diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury.”

In some ways, said Hiers, it’s an invisible injury. He can walk, and talk and interact with people. In other ways, his life was completely changed. 

“I suffer from fatigue. I wake up tired,” said Hiers. “And once 2 p.m. hits, it’s a downward spiral. Sometimes it’s straight down, sometimes it’s an angle.”

In addition to that fatigue, he also has anxiety, particularly in public places, mood swings, depression and suicidal ideation — the last of which has caused him to be hospitalized six times since his diagnosis, as well as two partial hospitalization programs.

One of the things that keeps him going, he said, is his children. 

“They’re little buggers, but I love them,” Hiers said, nodding to his kitchen, where three of his four daughters, Zoe, Kailyn and Lorelei, are chattering as they play with Play-Doh, and his toddler, sitting on Katie’s lap. “Knowing what happens, statistically, what happens to children of suicide victims, how much more likely they would be to do something like that in the future, that’s what keeps me around.”

And each time Hiers goes into the hospital, it has an impact on their family, said Hier’s wife, Katie. “Every time he goes into the hospital, that’s time he has to spend away from his family. That’s time that we can’t have with him. And that’s hard,” she said.  

His brain injury, as well as a concurrent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — which may have been compounded by Hiers previous service in the Navy — has had a profound impact on his family. The injury disrupts his cognitive function, and it’s impossible for him to hold down a full-time job, he said, leaving his wife, Katie Hiers, as the family’s main breadwinner.

“He can’t work full time,” said Katie. Hiers tried at first to continue his job, but ultimately gave it up when his brain injury was diagnosed eight months after his fall. “He would need to be able to take breaks whenever he needs to, and it’s not something that most employers are able to accommodate. Which is understandable, but it became my job to provide for the family,” said Katie.

Katie has gone back to school to get a master’s degree in mental health counseling, in order to get a higher paying career. In the meantime, the family is mostly subsisting off of Hiers’ disability and Katie’s student loans as their main sources of income. 

Hiers has also had to get used to new limitations — he’s not able to drive for long stretches at a time, has difficulty reading, and even something like playing a video game is now difficult for him.

A father’s day outing or a family trip to the movies — these things are now often too much for Hiers. 

The family hopes that can change, though, if Hiers is able to get a service animal to help him with his anxiety.

Search for a service dog

One of the things that helped Hiers after his injury were his pets, particularly his dogs, a beagle named Ezra and a pit bull named Feeney. But that move 10 months ago, into affordable housing at Riverview, meant that the family had to rehome their dogs, and Hiers saw a big impact on his mental health — three of his hospitalizations have been in those 10 months.

The Hierses are currently trying to raise funds to pay for the purchase and training of a service dog for Shawn — a process that can cost up to $10,000.

Gilford’s Golden Guardians would train a puppy to recognize the signs of anxiety or mood changes, and help head them off, as well as be trained in some mobility assistance to help Hiers, who anticipates getting surgery on his back in the near future. It’s particularly helpful to Hiers to have a service animal, which is allowed in public spaces, as it is in public or crowded areas that Hiers most often gets overwhelmed. 

“People think that’s a lot of money to pay for a dog,” said Katie. “But I don’t think they understand the freedom it will provide out family. We will be able to do things that we haven’t done in years. I’d pay $1 million for that.”

And, said Hiers, anything that is able to keep Hiers out of the hospital and in their home with his family, is worth the price. 

“This dog will help him notice when things are difficult and notice triggers and avoid hospital stays. Anything that allows him to be around more, to be here with me and with the kids, is worth it.”

Clarification: Though New Hampshire Ball Bearings is identified in this story, the family wants to reiterate that the company is not in any way at fault for Hiers’ fall.