Q&A: Andrew Bernstein on hit-and-run: “I came very close to death”
On July 20, Andrew Bernstein was riding a stretch of Arapahoe Road in east Boulder, Colorado, when he was struck from behind by a speeding vehicle and then left in a ditch alongside the road. The vehicle, believed to be a white Dodge Ram van, did not stop, and continued driving westbound.
Bernstein is a lifelong racer and a longtime stalwart in the bicycle industry. He worked at Rodale for Bicycling magazine for years, and recently moved to Boulder with his fiancee to work for the PR and media firm True Communications. He is a regular fixture in cycling media circles. Full disclosure: Bernstein is a friend.
The hit-and-run left Bernstein with life-threatening injuries, and he spent more than a week unconscious in the hospital fighting for his life. Police in Boulder began a process of trying to identify the parties responsible for the incident, and were able to locate the vehicle, however no arrests have been made.
Bernstein survived the incident, and is in the process of beginning his recovery. He has numerous broken bones, and he is partially paralyzed in his left leg. We recently met with Bernstein at his hospital in Denver to hear about the incident and his recovery. Below is an excerpt from the interview.
VeloNews: What do you remember from July 20, 2019—the day you were hit?
Andrew Bernstein: I had left my house in south Boulder and I was riding. My plan was to go to the velodrome in Erie, switch to my track bike, do some intervals, and come home. I bumped into Ben Delaney on the bike path out of town and he made fun of me because I had paper directions on my top tube, instead of programmed into my Wahoo. I deserved that. I rode to the track, and there were some other guys out there getting track certified. It started raining and you can’t ride the track in the rain, so we all decided to pack it in. I started riding down Arapahoe [road] and one of the guys passed me in the car and waved, and I waved back, and that is my last memory. Then I remember coming to in the dirt, and not being in pain but knowing that I was very badly hurt and needed help. I was looking for my phone, and either I couldn’t find my phone or my arms were broken and I couldn’t get them back into my pocket. I remember thinking I needed to call 9-11 or signal a car. And I was thinking about how I would sit up and raise myself up and that was my last memory before I woke up in the ICU seven days later.
VN: You were saved by a Good Samaritan named Tim, who stopped and found you in the ditch. How did he see you?
AB: Tim was driving home from church with his elderly father, and Tim was driving down the road and saw my face. It was fleeting and he was like, ‘I don’t know if I saw what I think I saw.’ He turned around and came back, and on the second pass didn’t see anything. But he turned around again and did a third pass, and on the third pass he saw my bike. Being a cyclist himself, he deduced that maybe something bad had happened. He pulled over and looked around and found me. He told me I had landed in a ditch or depression and I had then wriggled my way to the top, and that’s how I was able to raise myself up, enabling him to see me. So, he called 911 and stayed with me, and the ambulance came from Lafayette, and I was transported to Boulder Foothills Hospital, where they put a chest tube in me. They couldn’t control my internal bleeding, so they packed my pelvis, and sewed it up—basically packed me full of rags to stop the bleeding—and at that point I was airlifted to Denver Health, a noted trauma center, and once I got there they continued to try and stabilize my blood pressure and started to do whatever they could to take care of me. And that began a several days long push to keep me alive and also address some of the orthopedic injuries.
VN: What have doctors told you about how close you were to losing your life?
AB: I came very close to death. It took them a day to control my blood pressure and the internal bleeding. I lost a lot of blood. And I am incredibly grateful to the team of emergency room doctors in Boulder and Denver, because they saved my life. Without them I would be dead—no two ways about that. Those providers made difficult decisions, and the right ones, and because of that I’m alive. I was unconscious for all of that, but it was extremely scary time for my fiancée, Gloria, and my family and I’m very grateful to be sitting here talking to you.
VN: Starting from head to toe, what is the list of your injuries?
AB: My theory is that the van hit me on the left side of my body, which caused most of the severe injuries, and then there were more minor injures that happened when I hit the ground. No doctor has told me this. Starting with my head, I had a minor concussion that I slept off in the hospital. I broke one of my cervical spinal vertebrae, which is scary. I broke my humerus and all of my ribs and my sternum. My pelvis is fractured in three places. My femur was broken, the head snapped off. Tibia and fibula both shattered, and my ankle was broken. Most severely, there were 7-8 vertebrae in my back that were broken: Five of those were fused and two were so badly damaged that they were replaced with titanium cages. I have two collapsed lungs, a laceration on my liver, and some bleeding out of my heart. They refer to me as a poly trauma. Any one of those things can kill you—well, maybe not my ankle. I forgot, I also broke my right collarbone. That’s the one thing that happened when I hit the ground, I think.
VN: What are your memories from when you regained consciousness?
AB: My initial memories are not reliable to reality. I remember that Gloria was there and my brother was there and my dad was there. I had a couple of very close friends in the early days as well and I remember all of them being present and taking care of me. And I remember it took me a little while to understand what was going on, and why I couldn’t go home and the severity and everything. My family didn’t explain my spinal cord injury at first. Okay, I have a spinal cord injury which has left my left leg—it’s not paralyzed, there is sensation, but I can’t control it or move it—and it took my family a few days to explain that to me. They were nervous about talking about it with me too soon.
VN: You were the victim of a hit-and-run. What have been your emotions throughout this experience? Are you angry?
AB: When you experience trauma, it’s important to be open to the full range of emotions. That’s where I’m at. I feel a lot. I feel grateful. I feel sad. I feel angry. I feel confused. I feel frustrated. I feel proud. And they all kind of come and go. I really am trying to focus in on the gratitude and pride of what I am accomplishing. When you have an injury like I have with my left leg, you have to re-learn how to stand up. It’s super hard, especially when I’m not able to use my left arm because it’s healing. Technically, I’ve got a right arm and a right leg and I have to do everything for the rest of my body. But on the other hand, I stood. When I stood for the first time, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than any interval I’d ever done on a bike. It took every muscle in my body, and I was proud I did it.
VN: What are your thoughts on how better infrastructure or driver’s education could prevent crashes like this from happening?
AB: We don’t know who was driving the van yet, or what their circumstance was of the crash. If they were texting or drunk or just hate cyclists and wanted to take it out on me. Certainly, driver education in this country is laughable and I’d love to see more serious efforts to teach people how to drive, and that it’s a real responsibility to be behind the wheel. You’re controlling a deadly weapon, and one that is never more than a few seconds away from killing somebody. The other thing is you get a driver’s license at 17 and it could be valid the rest of your life. If I was emperor of the U.S., I would make Driver’s Ed more stringent and I’d re-test every five years. And the other flip side is enforcement. It’s different here, but where I’m from in New York City you see people drive through red lights constantly. Nobody uses turn signals. There’s very little to no enforcement and so I’d love to see enforcement improved.
VN: What perspective from this experience would you pass on to other cyclists?
AB: Don’t get hit by a van. It’s terrible. I don’t know. You know the advice I would offer is I have been supported by a tremendous network of family and friends, and I’ve gotten cards from people who are cyclists that I don’t even know. They send me a support note, and it’s helped me a lot. Of all the positive vibes and prayers and messages—it’s been tremendous for me. The advice I’d offer is to invest in your community and your loved ones with your time and energy and then, when you need them, they’ll be there for you.
VN: And what advice would you have for drivers?
AB: Put your phones down. If you’re driving, you’re driving. You shouldn’t be doing anything else. And please remember how vulnerable we are. We’re not surrounded by a steel cage to keep us safe. I’d ask drivers to treat driving like it’s a responsibility.