PLEASANTON — Denise Zwiener uses the word “miracles” often when she talks about Sunday, April 8, 2018. That day, her husband Shayne shot himself in the right temple.
Those miracles include the way family raced to the scene. The dedication of doctors and therapists. The prayers of strangers. Their Catholic faith.
And that Shayne survived.
The day it happened
Shayne had struggled with depression and anxiety for a year. In early February 2018, he had told Denise he was considering suicide, but a few weeks later, when she had asked him if he had any more such thoughts, he said no. As executive director of Buffalo County Community Partners, she knew what to watch for.
That week, she had considered removing guns from the home, but “part of me said that hearing him say he was doing well meant that he was. I didn’t think I needed to,” she said.
But on Sunday morning, two days after he had started taking antidepressants, he couldn’t get up. “We tried to go to church, he just couldn’t get up,” Denise said.
Saturday had been a good day. They even had gone to a movie, “but Sunday morning, he was having a hard time, but he knew he had to get things done around the farm,” she said.
He couldn’t even take their daughter Marinna, then 14, to basketball practice, so Denise did.
“When I drove in after practice, there was something in the air. I just knew something wasn’t quite right,” she said. Their dog Carly usually scampered up to the car when they drove in, but not today.
Denise hunted for Shayne and found him in one of the outbuildings with Carly.
“He was very distraught. He wasn’t making any sense. I tried to talk to him and hug him. I encouraged him not to harm himself,” she said.
“I realized he had a plan in place. He couldn’t tell me what the plan was, but I saw a gun laying there,” she said.
Seeing a hunting rifle nearby, Denise handed it to Marinna. Shayne told her that he wanted to drive away, “but he wasn’t Shayne at that point. There was no reasoning with him,” she said.
She got the car keys away from him, but she didn’t realize he had another gun in a vehicle that was sitting in the shed. Things escalated quickly. She asked Marinna to call 911, but the calls kept dropping, so Marinna called her uncle, Chad Dixon, Denise’s brother, who is an EMT and the fire chief in Pleasanton. Chad and his wife hurried over. So did Denise’s parents.
As Chad sped down the driveway, Denise looked up and realized Shayne had gotten that gun. She tried to get it away from him, but she wasn’t strong enough. “My brother pulled up just as Shayne fired the gun at his head,” she said.
Her brother had a portable first aid kit.
The 911 call went through.
An ambulance from Pleasanton arrived within 10 minutes and whisked Shayne away. That unit was met by the CHI Health Good Samaritan ambulance three miles down the road.
“Those things don’t happen out here. We’re 20 miles from Kearney,” Denise said. “Shayne was alive. I was alive. Our daughter was alive. I call it miracle after miracle.”
By the time Shayne was transferred to Good Sam paramedics, he was squeezing hands and answering questions — another miracle, Denise says. At the ER, they were met by yet another miracle: neurosurgeon Dr. Ahmad A. Bader and what Denise called a “phenomenal” trauma team.
Bader gave them a choice.
He could either perform six hours of surgery to remove fragments and debris from the gunshot, or he could do nothing.
“He didn’t guarantee that Shayne would survive, so he told us, ‘we can do nothing, or we can do surgery.’ I told him we are a God-fearing family and we would do everything we could to save him,” Denise said.
The surgery ER waiting room was overcrowded with family and friends. After the surgery, Bader told them he’d had to remove part of Shayne’s skull to relieve the swelling, but he made no promises.
“Time will tell,” Bader said.
The first 48 hours were crucial. Shayne was in the ICU. The staff watched for infections.
“We are a Catholic family, and I am still astounded to hear people tell me, ‘Our book club or sorority prayed for you that day,” Denise said.
Family and friends brought so much food they shared it with other families in the ICU. “We became known as the main restaurant on ICU,” Denise said. “It was a constant string of wonderful, beautiful people coming through.”
For the first 24 hours, Denise and the couple’s children — Marinna; Kaden, 24, and his wife Macy; and Shelena, 22, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — sat by Shayne’s bedside.
“He was a bit more alert, but he was swollen, and he could not see us through the bandages, but he started tapping a tune to an ’ 80s band. We celebrated any signs that his brain was functioning. He was able to squeeze our hands. The second night, he actually clapped his hands.”
‘People don’t survive this’
Bader had never had a case like Shayne’s, so he could not make a prognosis. “People don’t survive this,” he told them.
But Shayne did.
“It was a series of miracles. Every day was another miracle,” Denise said. He got off the ventilator and began breathing on his own earlier than expected. He had no infections. Within the first week, he got up and began to walk. He was eating. He recognized his family.
Denise had one fear: “Most of the frontal lobe is emotions. I wondered, what if he does not have capacity to love?” But as she watched, “it was very apparent he knew love. He knew his family was with him.”
At first, he was fuzzy on Denise’s name, but he recognized and named his friends. That was reassuring, she said.
Move to Madonna
By the first week in May, he was moved to Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Omaha. Denise had been tussling with the insurance company and was relieved to get him out of the hospital. “He was recovering fast, and they needed help to keep challenging him, so they moved him to Madonna,” she said.
He was at Madonna for four weeks. He relearned how to walk and talk. He learned the alphabet and names of colors. He learned to teach his brain to say, for example, “This is a phone,” and transcribe what that was. He learned to get in and out of bed, take a shower, shave and brush his teeth.
Denise was there every day. She stayed in her parents’ fifth-wheel in the Madonna parking lot.
One month later, he was moved to QLI Quality Living Inc. in Omaha for more intensive therapy, a place Denise describes as “phenomenal. Everything we take for granted, he had to learn at 48 years old,” she said.
Friends and family helped with gas and food and brought Marinna to Omaha to visit. She was staying with relatives at Pleasanton so she could go to school and continue her activities.
“Our children’s lives were continuing, but it was a hard thing. Our family was split in half,” Denise said. “But being able to check in on how they were feeling and how they were doing was good.”
Rebuilding a life
Denise brought Shayne home Aug. 23. It was earlier than planned, but his mother was seriously ill. She passed away that night.
“We came home to more emotions,” Denise said. They faced not only grief and funeral rituals with family and friends, but a dramatically altered life.
“It was the unknown of what tomorrow will bring, how will I get to work, how will I earn a living and take care of family,” she said.
Buffalo County Community Partners allowed Denise to work from home at first and extended her paid time off.
“That was a godsend. I needed that for my emotional health,” she said.
She had been off work for four months. “It’s hard to re-engage your brain back into work and rebuilding your life.”
She eventually began working four, 10-hour days each week.
Shayne had recovered, but his brain worked at the level of a 9-year-old.
He had just left his job as manager of Nebraska for Frontier Communications and was to begin a new position splicing fiber with TurnKey Solutions. That option was gone.
Shayne could no longer drive.
Denise had to find a caregiver for him so she could work. She had to drive him to therapy in Kearney every week. He could not be left home alone.
That was only the beginning.