'We'll just never know': Family perplexed by man's brain injury

One night this August, Shawn Hill hailed an Uber after a bachelor party. He woke up in hospital with a brain injury, and three months later, his family is still trying to piece together what happened.

Shawn Hill fractured his skull late one night in August, but doesn't know how it happened

Shawn Hill rests in his bed at the Ottawa Hospital with his son, Levi. For the past three months, Hill has been recovering from a brain injury he suffered under mysterious circumstances. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Shawn Hill's family may never learn what really happened.

Early on the morning of Aug. 29, the 43-year-old chef and well-known member of the Ottawa music scene was found unconscious just blocks from his home.

Three months later, he's still recovering in hospital from a traumatic brain injury — and can't say how he ended up there.

"The hardest part is just not knowing. That's the worst. He's definitely never going to be the same," said Melissa Acheson, Hill's long-term partner.

"We don't know if he'll ever be able to come home."

Hill has been recovering at the Ottawa Hospital since suffering the initial injury and later falling into a coma. His partner, Melissa Acheson, and their eight-year-old son, Levi, have been keeping him company. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Injured after party

Earlier that night, Hill had been downtown at a bachelor party while Acheson stayed in with their eight-year-old son, Levi.

Around 12:30 a.m., Acheson texted Hill, asking when he'd be home. Hill didn't reply, something Acheson felt was "out of character."

Her suspicions were confirmed 90 minutes later when Ottawa police showed up on her doorstep with news that Hill was in critical condition at the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus.

The first thing he said to me was, 'I have no idea what happened.'- Melissa Acheson

At the hospital, doctors said Hill had fractured the back of his skull and had bleeding and bruising at the front of his brain.

Initially, things looked promising.

"He woke up [the] next morning, and cognitively, he was fine," Acheson recalled. "The first thing he said to me was, 'I have no idea what happened.'"

Before his brain injury, Shawn Hill played guitar in a number of local bands. In this photo from 2010, Hill is seen on stage at Bluesfest. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

A turn for the worse

Hill knew where he was, Acheson said, and was "really upset" to be stuck in a hospital bed.

Over the next week, they would text regularly. The veteran chef — Hill had worked for nearly two decades in the kitchen at Elgin Street pub The Manx — would complain frequently about the hospital food.

Then, Hill's sodium levels began to drop. Some 10 days after being rushed to the hospital, he slipped into a coma.

The following weekend, Hill suffered seizures and a pair of strokes. On Monday morning, Acheson got a call: the hospital needed her immediate consent to perform surgery that would relieve swelling in Hill's brain.

"I said to them, 'Well, I'm on my way there. I'll be there in about half an hour,'" she said. "And they said, 'We don't have half an hour.'"

Melissa Acheson sits in the cafeteria at the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus on Nov. 21, 2018. She's been spending most of her time at the hospital ever since her partner, Shawn Hill, suffered a brain injury in August. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

'Our best guess'

Here's what Acheson and her family have been able to piece together about the night Hill was injured.

They know Hill's friend called him an Uber from the party. They know the driver — whom police later interviewed — made a wrong turn and that Hill got out and walked.

They know a passerby found Hill a few blocks from his home, near Carling Avenue and Richmond Road, and called 911. And they know Hill still had his wallet and phone, which is why police ruled out foul play.

Beyond that, there are few certainties.

"Our best guess is that he fell backwards off of the curb, maybe," Acheson said. "But it's something that we'll just never know."

I think he's made great progress. I'm sure he's going to continue to.- Tom Hill, Shawn Hill's father

After the three-hour craniectomy — doctors removed part of his skull and implanted it in his abdomen, so it could potentially be reattached later — Hill was placed in a medically-induced coma.

His doctors weren't sure he'd ever wake up, but after a few days, Hill opened his eyes. He spent the next few weeks in the ICU before being gradually moved into less acute levels of care.

About 10 days after his injury, Hill's brain began to swell. Doctors removed part of his skull to relieve the swelling and implanted it in his abdomen, in the hopes it can one day be reattached. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The coma left Hill with definite cognitive impairments, however. Acheson said he struggles to form new memories, and often doesn't know he's in the hospital, believing instead he's at work or band practice.

Still, there are signs he's improving — like the fact he seems to know the large indentation in his skull isn't normal.

When a CBC reporter showed up at his hospital room this week, Hill talked briefly about his time playing guitar and watching television in hospital with his son. He also expressed a desire to return to his chef's job.

"I'm personally very optimistic about it. I think he's made great progress. I'm sure he's going to continue to," said Hill's father, Tom, who was at his son's bedside.

"[Before], he couldn't even open his eyes. He didn't have the strength .... to go from that to this condition in a few months is very, very impressive."

A pair of post-it notes affixed to Shawn Hill's wheelchair. Acheson says the 43-year-old has had difficulty forming new memories since emerging from his coma. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)
Levi points to a drawing he made after his dad suffered a brain injury in August. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Fundraisers helping

Since Hill's injury, Acheson has taken time off from her job as a manager at a locally run grocery store. She's now spending most days caring for their son and supporting Hill in hospital.

That's led to concerns about financial security. On Friday night there's a fundraiser at Bank Street music venue House of Targ, featuring a number of bands in which Hill has played.

Some of his coworkers at The Manx have also launched a GoFundMe page, and it's brought in $27,000 — nearly twice its original goal.

Acheson said the kindness and generosity has been unbelievable. It's also helped her concentrate on helping Hill heal, rather than obsessing about what happened that night and pondering what the months and years ahead will bring.

"If I do that, I will lose my mind," Acheson said. "I'm really just trying to focus on the day-to-day."

Melissa Acheson has been trying to piece together what happened to her partner, Shawn Hill, after he suffered a brain injury in August 2018 while returning home from a friend's bachelor party. Here, the couple poses with their eight-year-old son, Levi, in Hill's room at the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)