This week, JJ and Rachel continue their discussion on how the pandemic impacted individuals with disabilities with Michigan Supreme Court Justice, Richard Bernstein.
Rachel: And now for part two of our episode with Justice Bernstein. If you haven’t listened to part one, go back in your favorite podcast app or on Ruralhealthrising.com and listen to that first episode from last week. Today is the continuation of that. Let’s jump back in.
JJ: So, can we talk about your personal experience during Covid-19? Yeah, I love it. But how did you, Justice Bernstein, process this yourself? You’re a strong man, right? You’re strong in your faith. How did you process this yourself? What did you do to jump these hurdles?
Justice Bernstein: I’m going to tell you something. I’m just going to give you a quick example of how horrific this was. And I’m not that kind of person, right. You have to understand, I’m not that guy.
JJ: No, you’re not.
Justice Bernstein: Right. But I want to emphasize this. So just to give you a comparison, right? So, a few years back, I had just finished my 17th marathon, and I was getting ready for my 18th marathon, and I was in Central Park. I’m a part of a running club called Achilles, and it’s the greatest organization ever because it works with severely disabled people and gets us into running, right? It’s a phenomenal organization in every way. And so I was in Central Park, and I’ve memorized a loop that goes around the park. And I’ve committed to memory. So, I can do it without an escort or a guide, so I can do the loop kind of independently without assistance. I’m very proud of this. So, I was walking in the pedestrian lane. It was August 13, gorgeous day, like 85 degrees and sunny. And as I walked on the pedestrian lane, a bicyclist was traveling over 35 miles an hour. He was just going really fast, and he hit the park’s biggest hill, and he lost control, and he slammed into my back at 35 miles an hour, right? So, I was in the pedestrian lane. He veered into the lane and hit me right in the back. And it was a catastrophic injury. I mean, this required over ten weeks of hospitalization at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. So, this isn’t recap. This was hospital like, I had to learn how to walk again.
JJ: I did not know that.
Justice Bernstein: Oh, yeah. I had to learn how to do everything all over again, right? Because you’re talking about a ten week forget rehab. This was before rehab. This was ten weeks of the hospital. And that’s how intense it was. The reason I’m sharing this with you is because I haven’t felt pain like that in my entire life. You can imagine ten weeks in hospitalization. You’re dealing with some pretty intense, catastrophic injuries. It’s pretty traumatic. So, the issue is that I’m sharing that with you because ultimately, as horrible as it was, and I had to just do everything all over again, right? And dealing with the pain. And I still feel pain every single day. That’s why I exercise a lot, because ironically, you guys are a health care system. I find that with my injuries, the more I’m mobile, the easier it is. If I don’t exercise, I really feel the pain. But if I get out and move, I actually feel better. I mean, the pain is always there. It’s just the way life’s going to be. I’m just used to it. It’s just how it is. But I remember people used to come and visit and I’d always ask them, I’d say, okay, so tell me, when you leave Sinai, where are you going to go? And they’d always say in a rudimentary, mundane way that I was, oh, I’m going to go visit some friends. I’m going to head back to the office. And I always say to them, look, these are the things that people dream about when you’re in a hospital. These are the things that people long for. And at the end of the day, life is not about big things. Life is about small things and simple things. It’s never the big things. It is always an exclusively the small things.
JJ: You’re right.
Justice Bernstein: And in my situation, I remember I couldn’t use the bathroom, I couldn’t take a shower, and I would writhe in pain, like all night. But the reason I share that is because ultimately, I’m going to share this story, because it just goes to my faith as I work through this. With a lot of help from a lot of people, I remember with a lot of energy and passion and strength, I was able to kind of start moving my legs. I was able to start using a walker, and I was able to find my way to the end of the ward to visit the nurse’s station on my own. But then after I got released from the hospital, I said to myself, okay, I mean, these injuries are going to be long lasting, but it was time for the New York City Marathon. It wasn’t probably one of my smartest ideas, but I just didn’t care. And as we ran to the streets of New York, as we crossed the 59th Street Bridge and started running up First Avenue at mile 18, the pain was becoming so severe, it was becoming so intensive, that I remember reaching up to the Creator and praying. And I said, Dear Lord, I said, please. I said, let me have this. I’m at mile 18, I’m on First Avenue. Let me be able to cross the finish line. Let me have this moment. Let me be able to do this. And I remember all of us are going to have this experience in our life. Either we’ve had it or we will have it. But you can feel the battle that exists within your soul.
Justice Bernstein: And I could feel it. There was a battle that was raging. You could sense the lightning and the wind; you could feel the thunder. And I really go into this because all of us have this moment with God where you’re just angry and you’re furious and you’re just enraged. But then what happens is you find ultimately what it is that I think we’re all looking for. You find a level of peace. You find peace with your new body, you find peace with your new circumstance, you find peace with your new life. And for me, I was able to find my peace with God. Why do I share that story with you? When you ask about the covert restrictions, the challenges and the physical pain that I had in the hospital were less difficult than the isolation that the Covid restrictions brought upon? Well, because in the hospital and when you’re running a marathon, you’re doing these things. What are you doing? You’re with a team, you’re with people, they are with you. So even though you have this immense physical pain, the fact that you’re not alone, basically, you feel that that gives you the energy to survive and to move forward. The absolute pain of isolation. I’m just telling you, as a guy who has gone through physical pain and then isolated pain that the Covid restrictions brought to bear, the isolation of Covid restrictions was far worse. That’s a pretty profound just think about what I’m saying. Right. I don’t want to loss over that’s. Right.
Justice Bernstein: The isolation for me was far more difficult than the physical challenges that I had after going through a catastrophic injury. And I think that that’s a powerful comparison. There’s some reflection. Right. Because ultimately, how is my day, right? Because what was my day like, right. My fiancé, she now lives here in Michigan, so I’m very excited about that because she lives here in our state, and I’m very excited she’s lived here. Well, thank you. I’m so excited that Vanya lives here. But the fact is that during Covid, Vanya didn’t live here. She lived in New York while she was in New York and I was here. I was by myself. Now she’s here. So, life is good. But during Covid, she was in New York. And let’s look at all the things that they restrict. You couldn’t travel, you couldn’t go place, you couldn’t do things. And this is something that nobody really thought about. Right? Because why would you? Again, people make their choices. Right. For me, what ultimately and again, this is not like I don’t want this to be I just want people to learn from this, right? To learn. We all have our woes and our challenges. I don’t want people to think of that way. But I want to tell you something. We’re back, baby. I love it, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is the kind of thing that can never happen again. Never. People make their decisions. You live your life and you do what’s in the interest of yourself and your family, but you make your decision. The government doesn’t tell you where you can go and what you can do, because in this situation, a lot of things got overlooked. A lot of things. Right. How does a blind person get food? Let’s just talk about that. Right? Let’s talk about that. So basically, what happened in my situation was, if you shut down Uber, how do I go places? Right? Again, it’s a risk assessment that I have to make as a blind person who, again, is sensitive and appreciative of risk. It’s a risk assessment that I have to make, right? And ultimately, people that are out in the community or out in society, they will make their own risk assessments as to what works for them. And I remember my very good friend Bushwa. Who’s here in the studio today. She and I would travel around the state. And we would go to all the different police stations. And we would drop off food. And we would drop off protective gear. And we would drop off sanitizer. Because yes. Because the police officers were basically out on patrol. Out doing the work that they had to do. But they were getting forgotten. People weren’t focusing on the fact that these police officers were basically having to work without protective gear. And so, we would bring them food, we bring them that’s incredible. We bring them dinners; we would do that kind of stuff. So that basically just they knew that they weren’t being forgotten. Right. But I loved it because it was my chance to interact with people and to be with people. And the thing is that what happened in this situation, which is really upsetting and really infuriating, was for someone like myself, who was living by himself in his apartment, I think there was about a month that or maybe two months, I didn’t have any human contact. Think about that, right? You’re living by yourself, you’re blind, and you’re not having any contact with other people. And then I would say, oh, well, why don’t we just do Zoom? Well, guess what? I can’t really do zoom. And so, the way it would work for me is that I would ask, well, can we just do it by phone? Right? Because I couldn’t really use Zoom, so I wasn’t really participating in a lot of things, because ultimately, if you couldn’t do Zoom, you couldn’t have a meeting, you couldn’t have interactions, you couldn’t be a part of things. So ultimately, we had to work out a system. It was just unbelievable.
JJ: But you’re a Supreme Court justice. How in the world can you do your work if you can’t physically be there? And you struggled with it because you can’t access Zoom.
Justice Bernstein: Exactly.
JJ: But you’re making decisions that impact people’s lives.
Justice Bernstein: Absolutely. Organizations incorporate everybody’s, like, well, let’s just be on Zoom, right? Let’s just be on Zoom, as if it was that easy, if it was anything. And then the general consensus was and basically the overall consensus was, well, we’re just going to do it this way, and that’s just too bad, right? That was the overall way overlooked. It was just this notion that society has kind of we can dismiss it. The powers that be basically decided that Covid is going to override everything. Right. So, because of Covid, this is now going to be the override, that Covid is an override for anything at this point, right. For whatever it is. Covid is the reason why we’re not going to meet in person. Covid is the reason why we’re not going to come into work.
JJ: Cove has become quite a crutch.
Justice Bernstein: Yes. It’s the reason why we’re not going to do something. So, if somebody like myself says, well, listen, I’d like to participate, I’d like to be a part of this, the response back would be, well, because of covert restrictions, we’re sorry, but this is just the way it’s going to be. So, the way that we would do things is literally you would see the court and you would see the six justices on Zoom, and then you would see me like it would just be by cell phone. So, what they would do is I would have a cell phone and they would basically put the cell phone next to the computer, right? So, what happened is you would all be on Zoom. Let’s say you’re having a meeting, right? You would all be on Zoom, I would be on the cell phone, and then the cell phone would just be placed next to the computer. So ultimately what would happen is that I would have to listen through my cell phone, I would have in my living room, and then I would basically have the cell phone on the other end would just be next to a computer. So, I’d have to listen through the.
JJ: Computer to the cell phone.
Justice Bernstein: But the problem was that you couldn’t communicate equally because it didn’t work. Because what would happen is that they’d have to because of the interference, because they’d have to mute you. If you had something that you want to share, you have to be unmuted, but they’d only unmute you at certain times. So, this is how it was. I mean. Society for someone like me. Who craves people. Who loves being in person. Who does all this kind of stuff to do the things that I love to do. The things that I want to be a participant in. It was unbelievably complicated and literally remarkable in just the logistical feat that we had to go through just to participate in a basic meeting or a basic hearing that I could ultimately participate on an equal fashion.
Justice Bernstein: And I’m just going to tell you something. Never again is this going to happen, right? Never again. I’m just going to be very clear about this. Again, I can’t be partial because we might have cases that will come in front of us, this and that. I just want to be very clear for the record, I’m not speaking about any specific case, right? I’m not speaking about any specific litigation. I’m not speaking about anything that’s coming before the court. But what I am speaking about is my own general belief as it pertain to my own personal life experiences, right? I’m not speaking about cases. I’m not speaking about litigation. I’m not speaking about anything that is coming before the court. What I am speaking about as a human being who is blind, I am speaking about my personal life experiences. And through those life experiences, even though I’m a judge, I have the right to my opinion. Absolutely right. No one can take that away from me. So, I am just speaking as to my personal life experiences that’s right. And how I am going to use those life experiences to fight to recreate the life that we are all supposed to live and that we’re all supposed to have.
JJ: And you’re doing a fantastic job in advocacy.
Justice Bernstein: I want you to know that this is important.
JJ: It is important you’ve lived your life to the fullest after Covid restrictions because you’re not letting anything pass you by, including the fact that you probably don’t have to call an Uber anymore. Because I understand, Justice Bernstein, you actually drove for the first time in your life.
Justice Bernstein: I sure did.
JJ: You have the Sheriff right next to you. Is that right? Tell us about that.
Justice Bernstein: I got to tell you something. So, here’s the thing, is that after Covid, right, we got to make up for lost time.
JJ: You are.
Justice Bernstein: That’s it. Let me tell you something. Every day has to count.
Justice Bernstein: Every day has to be meaningful, but I want to say from my own personal situation or my own personal situation, no cases, nothing like that. I know I’m being OCD, but I got to say it.
JJ: You do.
Justice Bernstein: I’m going to tell you something. There’s no way, no way I would ever allow or I will fight until the end if they even think for a second about having a restriction or a mask or whatever that is. No way. Right? No way. I don’t want to hear about it. We’re at a point now where you know what works best for you. I know what works best for me. And I’m going to go out there and I’m going to live my life. And I’m encouraging people to go out and live their lives as you are. And again and again, if you have a concern about it, by all means, take those necessary measures. But if you don’t, and if you want to live like me, and you want to make sure that you want to make up for lost time and God only gives us so many days, months, and years, as far as I’m concerned, I am going to maximize this to the absolute from sunrise until sun up, I am going to be outside. I am going to be exercising. I want my running club back. I want all of it. You know what? There’s a saying that I love to say. And you know what that is?
JJ: What is it?
Justice Bernstein: We’re back, baby. And I’ll tell you something when we’re back, we’re not changing. We are back, baby. And I’m going to tell you something, that is the way it’s going to be, and that is how it’s going to be. And again, at a certain point, I get really worked up about this. It’s enough. It’s just enough. At this point, as far as I am concerned, I’m going to move on. I encourage anyone that feels the same way that I do to move on as well and really focus on living your life and experiencing your life and making up for this so that you can say, oh, my God, I lost two years. But you know what? Today I was able to at least build in a week and just really focus on reclaiming your life and reclaiming that lost time. But, yes, I did drive a car because it was the one thing I had always wanted to do, right? And one of my absolute best friends is Sheriff Swanson, who is the coolest guy that you’re ever going to meet, because Sheriff Swanson is, without question, he is just the absolute coolest guy. And I said to the Sheriff, I said, Sheriff, the one thing I have always wanted to do is I have always wanted to drive a vehicle. I’ve always wanted my dream, right? Because this is look, doing an Ironman, doing marathons, doing all those other things.
JJ: Oh, those are just little things, right? I wrote an email this morning, and I feel accomplished. Okay?
Justice Bernstein: But they don’t require a lot of logistics, right, of a lot work, a wonderful team, people you train with, but it doesn’t require the logistics. And Sheriff Swanson is the one guy that if you say to him, this is my dream, he is the one guy that can totally make it happen. He’s the one guy that you’re like, okay, this guy can make it happen.
JJ: And he did.
Justice Bernstein: He did. So, the best part was he was able to find a car. We went to the Genesee County Fair and the car basically was spray painted. It said Blind Justice on the outside, which is my favorite part. But you have to understand, I have never driven a vehicle like, I’ve never operated a vehicle before. So, this was really a unique situation, because ultimately, what happens is when you’re driving a vehicle and you’ve never operated a vehicle before, you have no idea what you’re doing, right? So, the Sheriff basically was sitting next to me, but we use the same commands that you would use for the marathon and the Iron man hard right, soft right, hard left, soft, left, hard, soft. And then if you want to use the pedals, he would say, right foot down, left foot down, hard right, down soft right, down for the gas and for the brakes. I don’t know where the gas and the brakes are.
JJ: That’s true.
Justice Bernstein: But the funniest part was the craziest part was that if you’ve never driven before, you don’t have experience, so you don’t know. Like, when you think about it, I don’t know how to use a gas pedal, so you don’t know how to do it. You don’t know how to happen. So, what happens is your initial inclination is when he says right foot down, you just put your foot all the way down. It’s what you do. I’ve never done it before, so I don’t know. So basically, you just put your foot down, and it was so cool because he’s the sheriff, so he knows that handle it. But the thing is that and he was like, okay. He’d be like, left foot, which is the brake, but keep this in mind. I don’t know how to use a brake. So, when you hit the left foot down, you just hit it all the way down. So, like, the car would just come to this, like, screeching halt. It was so cool, honestly. Now, my favorite part of the entire thing this is my favorite part of it. At the end of the drive, the sheriff came around to the driver’s side, and he said, justice, I want your license, and I want your proof of insurance. And I got to use my favorite line. I said, Sheriff, I have one thing to say to you. And he said, what’s that? I said, Sheriff, you just got some blind justice.
JJ: Oh, nice.
Justice Bernstein: That is my favorite line ever. And then the best part is that I was asked, so why is this the first time you’ve ever driven? And I said, Because it’s insane. And then my favorite part was I said, well, I want to send a message to Secretary of State. I want her to know that I am now ready for my license. Sure, if it’s kind enough that I think he and I are going to go into the secretary and ask for my license, because he is going to certify that I pass the field test. But just to make it authentic, I’m going to wear, like, a race car driver uniform with my helmet. There you go. The secretary saying, go, I’m here for my license. You know what? I got to tell you something. The greatest thing about Sheriff Swanson is that if you have a dream, he’s going to make it happen. So, I have a feeling there could be some other things in store.
JJ: Good for you. We won’t ruin that.
Justice Bernstein: I got to tell you something, because, honestly, I haven’t had this much fun. I have never had this much fun in my entire life. But you have to realize, it’s like Scent of a Woman. Remember with Al Pacino when he was blind and he was driving a Ferrari, and he would, like, turn every blind person has that dream, and it finally became a reality. And you know what? I shared some other dreams with the sheriffs, and honestly, let’s see what happens. But I got to tell you something. It all goes back to the fact that we’re back, baby.
JJ: We are back.
Justice Bernstein: And that’s what it’s all about.
JJ: And what’s exciting, Justice Bernstein, is that you’re back and that your passion is second to none. Your purpose in life is well articulated in the stories that you told today. I am extremely proud of the work that you’ve done, not only on the bench, but for your advocacy work to those in need. So, on behalf of Hillsdale Hospital, Rural Health Rising, Rachel and myself, we say thank you for the work that you’ve done to bring this awareness. Now, what I want to challenge you with tell me. Is you and I are going to get together and we’re going to have a summit.
Justice Bernstein: Yes.
JJ: And we’re going to invite people from throughout the state of Michigan to talk about this very issue and to talk about the loss of life that occurred and talk about how we can move from this place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, that those who need a special touch, those who need a special word will receive it in the future. And so, I’m excited about the work that we’re going to do together. Are you committed?
Justice Bernstein: Oh, totally. I had to tell you something. Like I say, in person is in person.
JJ: That’s right.
Justice Bernstein: That’s what I said. In person is in person. And here’s the other thing. I want it packed. I want tons of people, and if I find out there’s any coping restrictions, there’s going to be trouble.
JJ: All right, Justice Bertie, we’re going to work on that. But I want to thank you today.
Justice Bernstein: I want it packed, though.
JJ: It’s going to be packed.
Justice Bernstein: Tons of people. And again, if there are people that have concerns, you can take whatever precautions you want to take. We’re totally fine with that. No problem. I just want to be very clear. I’m not.
JJ: That’s right. Well, justice person, we could talk for hours. And we just want to thank you for your work and your commitment and for joining us today on Rural Health Rising. We wish you the best and the most successful opportunities to spread this message of hope and of healing to our community. And you’re not just doing it in Michigan. You’re doing this across the country. You’re flying to places and driving to places to spread this good news. And I want to encourage you to continue the great work. So, thank you for joining us today on Rural Health Rides.
Justice Bernstein: And we’ll see everybody here at Hillsdale College and hospital.
JJ: That’s right.
Justice Bernstein: God bless you.
JJ: All right, sir. Thank you so much for joining us today. Before we close, Justice Bernstein, we like to do a fun segment with each of our guests, and we want to know what is your most rural experience or one of your favorite memories that is unique to rural life?
Justice Bernstein: Well, I have to say, I usually spend I try to go to the up here in Michigan.
JJ: Oh, yes.
Justice Bernstein: And before Covid, I would go three times a year to the Upper Peninsula. And I know it’s a fun question, but the reason it’s important is because what’s critical is for rural environments. In my situation as a Supreme Court justice, we’re making funding decisions that affect the court system for that community. Right. It’s actually kind of a serious thing. Right. So basically, ultimately, what happens, especially here in Michigan, is so often is the case that our friends and our neighbors in the Upper Peninsula, you’re making decisions in Lansing as it pertains to their funding models for their court systems, and often is the case that their voice isn’t being heard, right, because they’re not being represented. And so, when you’re dealing with funding allocations, especially for judges in the rural counties, what happens is that so often a lot of the funding tends to go to the more urban areas because people think, oh, it’s rural, so why do they need an extra judge? Why do they need these extra resources? But in reality, when you actually spend time in the Upper Peninsula, you come to realize that those judges are busier than ever. Right? Those judges have huge backlogs. I would love going basically before Covid, I would go to the up three times every year, and I loved it, love it, love it, love it. So, this year, finally, because Covid is over and we are back, baby.
Justice Bernstein: I finally, just about a week ago, got to spend a week in the Upper Peninsula just like a week ago. And I was up there. Oh, it was fabulous.
JJ: So, for you, where is that?
Justice Bernstein: When I go to the up, why you got to cover the circuit? So, you start off usually in Marquette over to the sue, then you go to Escanaba. Usually what you’ll do is you’ll go Marquette over to Houghton, and then Houghton over to Escanaba, and then Escanaba.
JJ: We love it up north, too. Our son goes to St. Marie.
Justice Bernstein: And then you’ll cover like, Iron Mountain, and then you’ll get back to Marquette. So, you kind of do the grand circuit. I love it up there. I’m going to tell you something. The reason that I love rural areas, I just love it. I love it is because it’s the things that we were talking about, Hillsdale. It’s the people. The people are so friendly. You know what I love about it is that it’s the same thing I love Hillsdale is when you go out and you’re blind, people will always ask if they can help you. Always. It doesn’t matter. Like, it’s wonderful.
JJ: Great folks. Oh my God.
Justice Bernstein: People will always ask, hey, what can I do to help you? And they’ll take. You somewhere. Like, if you say to them, oh, I’m looking for the Fairfield Inn, they’ll be like, oh, well, let me take you there.
Justice Bernstein: That’s how great people are, connection. They will never let you be alone. They’ll help you cross the street. But you know what the best part is?
JJ: Tell me.
Justice Bernstein: You’ll never walk by someone who doesn’t say hi to you. Is that the coolest thing? But if you say hi in the big city of people, there comes what I love about the up is that you’ll never walk by someone who doesn’t give you a greeting. Sure.
JJ: It’s incredible.
Justice Bernstein: I just love that it’s such a wonderful way to live. It’s such a great way to be. I mean, we’re so blessed, like I say, is that it just allows you to realize the good in people and the kindness of people and the warmth of people. It’s a wonderful life.
JJ: Well, to my new best friend, I.
Justice Bernstein: Always say to people, it helps not to know me, because once you know me, it’s infectious.
JJ: Again, thank you for sharing your experiences and the work that you’re doing. Again, we thank you for that, and may God richly bless you. Next time on Rural Health Rising, we’ll have another great conversation with another great guest, so be sure to tune in.
Rachel: And with that, don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, leave us a five-star review on Apple podcasts and tell others why they should listen to your feedback helps more listeners find Rural Health Rising.
JJ: And you can now find us on Twitter. I’m at Hillsdale. CEO JJ. Rachel is at rural health rage. And you can also follow the podcast at Rural Health Pod. Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay strong.
Rachel: Rural health. Rising is a production of Hillsdale Hospital in Hillsdale, Michigan and a proud member of the Health Podcast network hosted by JJ. Hodshire and Rachel Lott. Audio, engineering and original music by Kenji Olmer. Special thanks to today’s guest, Justice Richard Bernstein of the Michigan Supreme Court. For more episodes, interviews, and more information, visit ruralhealthrising.com.