Team Samaritan House rider draws strength from teammates in battle with brain cancer

Anya Semenoff

Last June, Luis Bernardez finished his second Ride the Rockies with Team Samaritan House. Having just recently retired from his job working as a physicist in California, he was ready to enjoy a new chapter of life in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife, Kellie. Luis assumed he would eventually return to the annual Colorado cycling tour but thought that aspiration could wait for someday farther down the road. Then in December, he received news that altered every plan: He was diagnosed with glioblastoma — brain cancer.

Luis knew he had no more time to waste waiting for someday.

“When you have time to live and do stuff, you tend to put things off a bit. And so this year, I decided I would try to do it again,” said Luis, 57, during a phone interview with Denver Catholic.

Following a near-immediate surgical procedure to remove the tumor in December, Luis underwent 42 days of chemo and nearly seven weeks of radiation. The intensity of the treatment made it hard to imagine undertaking a weeklong, 432-mile cycling ride through the Rocky Mountains.

“At first, he didn’t want to do anything, and then he started thinking about things,” said Kellie, Luis’ wife of 21 years. “It’s a different ride for him. In the past he’s been able to work out and get in shape for it, but this time it’s just to experience the whole thing.”

Ride the Rockies started in 1986, a creation of The Denver Post. The annual tour follows a different route each year in June, and typically involves cycling over 400 miles in total distance over six or seven days.

Team Samaritan House has fielded a team in the ride for nine consecutive years to raise money to support families and individuals experiencing homelessness. Started by team captain Tom Schwein and co-captain Tom Dea, it began with only six riders in 2010 and has grown steadily, with 50-60 riders participating in Ride the Rockies this year, according to Dea. Each rider on the team is asked to raise a minimum of $1,500, with all funds going to Catholic Charities’ Shelter Services in four locations in northern Colorado, including the counties of Denver, Larimer, and Weld, as well as a location on the Western Slope. Fundraising continues through October, and Team Samaritan House has a goal of $250,000 for this season.

For co-captain Dea, it is a blessing to meet and include the many different people that God brings together to support the team.

“Luis got involved the second year in 2011. He was a college friend and he was in my wedding, and I was in his. Luis is an exceptional athlete and he was excited to join the team. I invited him  and am thankful he accepted,” Dea told the Denver Catholic in an email sent from this year’s Ride the Rockies route. The race ran June 9-15.

When Kellie told Dea about Luis’ glioblastoma diagnosis, Dea was shocked, but still wanted to welcome his longtime friend to return to the ride for a third time.

“Not knowing whether he was willing to accept the challenge was hard, but once he agreed, I was stoked for the opportunity to spend a week with my college buddy,” said Dea.

The encouragement from Dea and the other Team Samaritan House riders, as well as from those who have donated to Catholic Charities in support of Luis’ ride, has been felt by both Luis and Kellie.

“Everyone so far has been very happy that he’s able to ride at all, and they’re very happy they’ve supported this whole organization in general, the whole Team Samaritan House and all of Catholic Charities. It’s been wonderful for all of them,” said Kellie.

Though not a practicing Catholic himself, Luis acknowledges a tangible sense of faith in the prayers offered for him by Dea and his teammates, and in all that surrounds him.

“[Faith] is more contemplative now,” said Luis. “Of course, God is all in on this, as far as things go. It does seem like God is there every day. I just seem to look around and He seems to be ever-present.”

Moving forward, Luis will continue chemotherapy treatments for as long as possible and won’t put off appreciating the time he does have.

“Because of the cancer, it makes you feel like you need to do the things that you want to do,” said Luis. “It’s kind of like the bucket list. You gotta get rid of those things.”

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images