NEWBURYPORT — He was the boy who walked her home — the boyfriend of Trista Zinck — who was lucky to survive being struck by a drunken teen driver in an accident that claimed the life of his 16-year-old sweetheart on Jan. 7, 2003.
That’s how 17-year-old Neil Bornstein came to be known to peers for his final year at Newburyport High School, in the wake of a horrific incident that occurred a decade ago this week.
But according to the recently released memoir “Crash,” penned by his mother, Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, the outgoing theater kid with a quick wit and great sense of humor didn’t feel lucky in those early days following the accident, and has fought hard to bounce back from injuries sustained that fateful night, 10 years ago.
“Five days after the accident, he asked me to bring Trista to visit him and that’s when we had to tell him she’d died,” said Roy-Bornstein. “He pulled the blanket over his head and said, ‘I don’t want to get up anymore.’ He refused physical therapy. He refused to eat. He wouldn’t get out of bed. He just shut down.”
And it didn’t get much easier from there, as Neil struggled for years to overcome the effects of traumatic brain injury that stole his light and diminished his academic and social abilities. On the 10-year anniversary of the accident, Roy-Bornstein says her son has only recently begun to exhibit some of the lightness that marked his life before the crash.
The accident on that snowy stretch of Ferry Road near the Interstate 95 overpass was a watershed moment for Newburyport. It sent shockwaves of grief and anger throughout the city, and led to a renewed commitment in Newburyport to preventing teen drinking. Authorities pushed hard to trace the source of the illegally procured alcohol and to punish those involved.
Through the sharing of her memoir, released this past September by Globe Pequot press, Roy-Bornstein and her son are still connecting some of the scattered dots to piece together what happened that night, since Neil recollects very little due to the nature of his injuries. And over time, Roy-Bernstein says she is finally able to say without fear or shame that it’s been hard.
“The reason I started writing the book is just to talk about the disenfranchised grief of being the mother of the child who survived,” said Roy-Bornstein. “For many years, I felt guilty for grieving for everything Neil went though. I’d ask myself, ‘Shouldn’t I just be grateful he’s alive?’ And of course, I am. It took me a long time to realize this is a pretty serious thing we went through — are still going through.”
Throughout his college days at Skidmore in New York, Neil struggled with depression and anxiety, along with debilitating headaches — all trademarks of traumatic brain injury. But Roy-Bornstein said her son also presented early on with a baffling set of symptoms that were sometimes difficult to understand, even for her, a practicing pediatrician.
“Initially, his personality was altered,” she said. “In the hospital he was kind of disoriented and confused and belligerent and demanding and that was not him at all.”
Though his leg lay shattered beneath him, in a hospital bed in Boston, he wasn’t curious about how it all came to be. He didn’t wonder why he had a broken leg.
“It was like his whole brain just shut down,” said Roy-Bornstein.
Between administering pain and seizure medications and orchestrating a team of therapists to tend to Neil at their home in Newburyport, Roy-Bornstein began a 10-year quest to gather as much research as she could to help her son get well. She read everything she could about breakthrough work being done with brain injury victims.
Her work led her to the Brain Injury Association, where she attended conferences and seminars on the myriad effects of brain trauma. And eventually, the group anointed her with an ambassadorship, entreating her to visit high schools and colleges and speak to students about the dangers of drunken driving, and to educate medical professionals and doctors and Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, on the short- and long-term effects of brain damage.
“He’s definitely a different person today than he was before the accident,” said Roy-Bornstein. “Maybe not in ways you would notice. If you met him, you’d notice what a nice young man he is.”
But in her book, Roy-Bornstein talks about the instances where her son demonstrates behavior she doesn’t recognize.
“I ask myself, is that the brain injury or is it Neil?” she said.
When Neil read that part of her book, he told his mom that he wonders the same thing himself. But in the end, he told her, it doesn’t really matter.
“‘This is just how I am now,’” he said.
Today he is enrolled in a graduate school program at UNH, getting good grades and advocating for himself with the school to accommodate the symptoms that endure. About one year ago, said Roy-Bornstein, Neil started dating a girl he’s still with today. It was his first relationship since the accident — since Trista.
He still carries the long-held dream he had when still a senior at Newburyport High School, to become a math teacher. And as a math teaching assistant at UNH, he’s close to seeing that dream become a reality.
Though Roy-Bornstein said she seldom dwells on the person responsible for her son’s troubles and for Trista’s death, she’s forced to think of him when his case comes back before the judge. Scheduled to get out of jail in 2014, William White was eligible for parole in September but was denied. It’s Roy-Bornstein’s feeling that the judge recognized something she and the Zinck family have long lamented, what they feel is White’s apparent lack of remorse for his actions.
Out on a suspended sentence with conditions several years after the accident, White was remanded to fulfill his sentence shortly after, having been seen at a bar drinking alcohol against court orders. His lack of contrition, she said, has been difficult to process.
“I remember wishing it was just some old lady or old man who swerved and lost control, where that would not really be their fault,” she said. “The kid that bought the alcohol for (White) was clearly shaken and remorseful and changed for life. That changed him completely as opposed to William White, who I’m not sure is capable of that kind of insight and reflection.”