Andrew Bernstein on Hit-and-Run That Nearly Killed Him, Search for Justice and Life Now

Andrew "Bernie" Bernstein in the hospital shortly after the 2019 hit-and-run crash that changed his life forever.
Andrew "Bernie" Bernstein in the hospital shortly after the 2019 hit-and-run crash that changed his life forever. Courtesy of Andrew Bernstein
Late last month in Boulder, 49-year-old Stephen Grattan received a two-year sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, criminal attempt to leave the scene of an accident and careless driving for a hit-and-run that nearly killed elite-level cyclist Andrew "Bernie" Bernstein more than two years ago.

Since then, Bernstein has been processing what happened, often juggling conflicting emotions. He deeply appreciates the efforts on his behalf by law enforcement and prosecutors, he says, but he's still dealing with permanent disabilities that have changed his life forever.

"A lot of people expected me to feel some sense of closure or relief after the sentencing, but it only drove home for me a sense of incompleteness," notes Bernstein, a former editor for Bicycling magazine now working as senior director in charge of paid media for TRUE Communications. "Nothing changes for me with his sentence."

The crash took place just after 4:30 p.m. on July 20, 2019, on Highway 7 (better known in the greater Boulder area as Arapahoe Road), at approximately milepost 56, not far from Legion Park. Bernstein had been riding at the Boulder Valley Velodrome in Erie and was pedaling west on the right shoulder when he was hit by what the Colorado State Patrol identified as an older model Dodge Ram van, whose driver kept going instead of stopping to help.

The specifics of what happened were a mystery, Bernstein told us a month later: "I had left the velodrome and was riding down Arapahoe, and someone who'd been at the velodrome, too, passed me in their car and waved — and that's the last thing I remember. The next thing I knew, I was coming to in the dirt, in a ditch. I tried to find my phone and wasn't able to find it, and then I tried to think about how I could raise myself up to wave at a car to help me. But I don't remember anything after that until I woke up in the hospital almost a week later."

Shortly thereafter, Bernstein learned that he had been visited by a guardian angel — Tim Gillach, a local insurance agent, who had gone through a very similar experience. The previous May, Bernstein revealed, Gillach "was hit by a car when he was riding his bike. It left him with significant injuries that required an extended hospital stay."

On July 20, 2019, Gillach "was driving his father home from church," Bernstein continued. "He was being observant and he saw me in the ditch." Gillach called 911 and stayed with Bernstein until emergency personnel arrived. "If he hadn't seen me, I would be dead," Bernstein believes.
click to enlarge Andrew Bernstein on the track prior to the crash. - COURTESY OF ANDREW BERNSTEIN
Andrew Bernstein on the track prior to the crash.
Courtesy of Andrew Bernstein
Bernstein detailed his injuries in a statement at Grattan's sentencing, noting that the impact "caused massive blood loss, damage to my spinal cord, 35 broken bones, two collapsed lungs, internal bleeding and a concussion."

During the months that followed, Bernstein received treatment from several local medical and rehabilitation facilities while prosecutors built a case against Grattan, who wasn't criminally charged until more than a year had passed. And the path to his guilty plea was just as lengthy.

"I'm very grateful to the Colorado State Patrol and Boulder County DA for their time and effort on investigating the crash that resulted in my permanent disability," Bernstein stresses. "It was a very long process — almost 2.5 years — and ultimately reached a conclusion that I think everyone involved in this case, including law enforcement, predicted from the beginning."

He acknowledges that "the criminal justice system does try to make things easier on victims such as myself, but ultimately it is a very hard process that took a long time, often involving months without any apparent movement in the case. Of course, it's likely that some of the time involved is accounted for by the unfortunate timing with other major global events — pandemic, social justice demonstrations, etc. Ultimately, I am glad to have come to the conclusion of the criminal proceeding and grateful that the state was able to successfully bring charges against a criminal driver, but the process was very hard on me, and the conclusion does not help me."
click to enlarge The booking photo for Stephen Grattan. - BOULDER COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
The booking photo for Stephen Grattan.
Boulder County Sheriff's Office
Indeed, Bernstein admits, "I am dissatisfied with the sentence. It does nothing to improve my situation and will result in the attacker being back on the road in a relatively short period of time. In that way, I do not feel like justice has been served. A just sentence would have prevented the assailant from ever driving again, but that type of punishment is not available to prosecutors, despite the prevalence of vehicular violence in this state and country. I have been left with a huge financial burden that will follow me for the rest of my life, and the sentence does little, if anything, to ease that burden. I am, however, glad that the driver is receiving a serious, if not wholly fitting, punishment. Too often, dangerous drivers get off without any meaningful punishment, and it's scary to me to think that had this criminal driver stayed on the scene instead of running, he would have been just as guilty but would likely have gotten away with a much lighter sentence."

As for how he's doing, Bernstein notes that "through a lot of hard work and investment in myself, I am continuing to make progress in recovering from my injury. However, my left leg is still partially paralyzed to my knee and completely paralyzed below my knee. My bladder and reproductive organs are also paralyzed and not likely to recover. So I am focused on learning to live in my body as it is, and to work with the strength it does have.

"I've been able to achieve some personal goals this year — climbing my first 14er this summer, and spending more time riding the gravel roads around Boulder on an e-bike," he continues. "But the achievements come only with huge costs and many, many hours put into my recovery each week. ... I still have to work just as hard, for the rest of my life, and unlike my attacker, my sentence will never end."
click to enlarge Images of Andrew Bernstein during rehabilitation, as well as an X-ray showing damage to his shoulder. - COURTESY OF ANDREW BERNSTEIN
Images of Andrew Bernstein during rehabilitation, as well as an X-ray showing damage to his shoulder.
Courtesy of Andrew Bernstein
Here's the statement Bernstein shared at Grattan's sentencing:

I appear before this court today understanding that the defendant will receive a stipulated sentence and that nothing I say here is likely to change the outcome of this proceeding. I nevertheless felt it was important to speak here so that the full impact of this crime would be entered into the formal record.

I am now a very different person than I was on July 20, 2019, when this dangerous and irresponsible driver hit me with his vehicle and nearly killed me. That crash caused massive blood loss, damage to my spinal cord, 35 broken bones, two collapsed lungs, internal bleeding, and a concussion. I was very fortunate to survive thanks to my own will, the keen eyes of an attentive motorist, the Lafayette fire department, and the Emergency Department at Boulder Community Health, which rendered my first emergent care.

Following my initial, life-saving care, I spent a month in the Level 1 trauma center at Denver Health, where I underwent 10 surgeries to stop the internal bleeding, fuse my spine, and repair my many broken bones. I was in a coma for much of that time, intubated and eventually given a tracheostomy. I still live with the drug-induced hallucinations from that period, and my loved ones live with the trauma of wondering if I would live. During my early care, it was also determined that the damage to my spinal cord was permanent and would have long-term consequences to my mobility and health. However, the diagnosis of a spinal cord injury is not a simple matter, and it took some time for the complete symptoms to become known.

After discharge from Denver Health, I spent another two months in rehabilitation hospitals, where it became clear that while my spinal cord was not completely severed, it was severely damaged. The effect of that damage is far greater than it might seem as I stand before you today. My left leg is partially paralyzed to my knee, and completely paralyzed below. To walk, I require a system of bracing that goes from under my foot to my thigh. This bracing has to be custom made, it is costly, and it is something that I will need to rely on for the rest of my life. Sensation in my leg is also greatly reduced, which requires me to take special care of my leg — and especially my foot — to prevent the kind of injuries that would be trivial to most but could cause me serious illness or even death. Something like a blister that I didn’t notice could make me very ill should it become infected. Without sensation, I may not immediately realize the presence of that kind of wound.

I am fortunate that my right leg was not affected by this assault, but because I have one strong leg and one weak leg, my left and right sides are continually out of balance, resulting in severe and chronic pain throughout my body.

My bowels, bladder and sexual function have also been affected. I am a healthy 36-year-old, but because my penis now also has reduced sensation, I require medication to engage in intimate activities. Spinal Cord Injury patients often experience decreased fertility, and mine is not yet known, calling into question whether or not I will be able to become a natural father.

Because my bladder is also paralyzed, I am only able to urinate by using catheters, which I insert into my urethra several times a day. These catheters are also costly, and ensuring that I have enough on hand is a source of continual stress.

I currently take numerous medications on a daily basis to manage all these symptoms, and ensuring that I always have enough on hand and am taking the correct dosage is another stressor, as well as a drain on my time and money.

Of course, the paralysis of my leg has the greatest effect on my daily activities. When I was assaulted, I was a high-level athlete who had recently returned home to Boulder after competing at the US Elite National Championships for track cycling, an Olympic-qualifying event. Besides competition, I enjoyed many of the activities that Colorado is known for: skiing, hiking, and walking easily into our many breweries and restaurants. I am now permanently disabled and unable to engage in any activity of daily living without assistive devices and support, let alone engage in high-level athletic competition.

While the symptoms of my spinal cord injury may slowly improve over time, they will never heal fully, and I have therefore been counseled to anticipate a lifelong disability that will also cause my body to age faster than it should.

All the initial injuries that I suffered in the crash, as well as the ongoing effect of my spinal cord injury, require extensive ongoing medical care. In order to be able to stand before you today, and to have walked into this building with only my cane for support, I have engaged in as many as nine physical therapy sessions a week for the last two and a half years. Those ongoing therapies are in addition to other medical appointments to manage chronic pain, the health of my bladder, my mental health, and to ensure that the hardware currently holding many of my bones together — especially the implants in my spine — remain in place.

The time required by extensive medical care leaves me challenged to live a full life that includes a career, family, and friends. Though I am still coming to understand the full ramifications of this assault, I know the impact is enormous.

The financial burden imposed on me by this man is much more clear: His actions have cost me tens of thousands of dollars in the last two and a half years. Assuming I’m able to maintain private insurance, this injury will continue to cost me tens of thousands of dollars each year for the rest of my life. If I am not able to maintain insurance for any reason, my out-of-pocket burden will quickly go into the millions and I will become bankrupt. One figure that I think about often is the initial care I received at Boulder Community Health in the first few hours. That cost more than $100,000 by itself. This financial burden will greatly impact the kind of life I can hope to achieve and potentially offer to a family.

This driver has demonstrated a wanton disregard for those around him and the utmost callousness toward me as a survivor of his violence by leaving the scene of the crash. Because he fled, we will never know if he was drunk or high when he hit me, if he was distracted, if he was simply careless, or if he decided he hated me enough to drive into me. Regardless, he demonstrated that he is not fit to operate a vehicle and has also demonstrated a lack of interest in abiding by the laws that exist for our common safety by driving without insurance.

For all those reasons and others, I feel strongly that the only fitting punishment would be for him to bear full financial responsibility for the harm he caused, and to never again operate a motor vehicle. But in this country we give such priority to cars and their drivers that punishment of that nature is deemed so severe as to be almost unthinkable, even in consideration of the grave injuries I will now live with.

The best solution our society does have is to put him in jail. The stipulated sentence means that he will have served his time and likely be back on the road long before I reach the conclusion of my life sentence. I do feel that the punishment agreed to today is warranted and appropriate, but it is also not adequate to help me, while also doing little to prevent him from inflicting further harm on others.

I can only hope that incarceration helps him become a better driver and a better person.

I am slightly more hopeful that others hearing about this case will remember their duty to be responsible on the road, and to look out for others on the road. Given that the sentence fails to truly and fairly mete out justice for me, I hope that it at least keeps someone else from suffering as I have.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts