By Michael Sudhalter
Ariel Berkowitz has no recollection of the moment that changed his life on Sept. 19, 2016.
He was looking to head home after attending a concert with friends in downtown Dallas, when he was struck by a Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) train. The impact knocked him unconscious and dragged him 200 feet.
“I was told that I was bleeding out,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz, who is now 26 years old, woke up at Baylor Medical Center, surrounded by family and friends.
He had a phantom sensation that his legs were still there, until his family informed him otherwise.
Instead of focusing on the loss of his limbs, he “got this jolt of positive energy and was very grateful to be alive. It’s amazing that my spine is fine and that I have my brain, arms and hands. I had two options at that point — to either throw in the towel and give up, or to pursue my dreams.”
The lifelong Dallas resident chose the latter.
“Losing my legs was secondary — I knew I had just escaped death,” Berkowitz said. “I was very positive seeing all of the family and friends around me. They were rooting for me.”
Berkowitz believes that God protected him during the most challenging time in his life and considers it a miracle that the accident did not take his life.
“I have strong faith in God and I want to inspire others,” Berkowitz said. “I’m here because I have something to share with the world. You have to be confident if you want to face challenges in life. Not everything is going to be easy, but I am trying to make progress every day, little by little.”
When Berkowitz was a young child, his family was very observant and attended an Orthodox synagogue. He attended Akiba Academy (now Akiba Yavneh Academy) and Torah Day School of Dallas before attending more secular schools later on in his educational journey.
Berkowitz’s recovery has prompted him to think deeply about faith and he now considers himself Orthodox. In January/February of this year, he traveled to Israel for the first time since childhood.
“It was very impactful and special to me, because I got to see the Holy Land, the Kotel and my 90-year-old grandfather who survived the Holocaust [as a teenager],” Berkowitz adding that
he’s “always believed in God” but hadn’t been observant for several years.
He started studying Torah on a regular basis and collaborating with a friend on Shabbat dinners. He also attends Congregation Achdut Israel in Dallas.
“The more I started to read Torah, the more I gained an awareness for God’s presence in my life,” Berkowitz said. “I felt it wherever I went. God really pulled off this great miracle for me.”
Berkowitz looks at the adversity that he’s faced as a challenge. He said growing up he had a “really good childhood” with no adversity.
“I was into biking, snowboarding, outdoor adventures, traveling, nature and friends — I felt like I was on top of the world,” Berkowitz said.
At the time of the accident, Berkowitz was a student at Dallas College–Brookhaven Campus. He had hoped to transfer to Texas Tech to pursue a career in meteorology.
Berkowitz’s recovery changed his career goals and trajectory.
He began looking into prosthetics — which have advanced considerably throughout the years — and was fitted for his first prosthetics in May 2017.
“I eventually walked on my own, without assistance,” Berkowitz said.
That experience prompted Berkowitz to pursue a career in prosthetics. He took the first step toward that goal when he graduated from the University of North Texas (UNT) at Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in biology last year.
His focus at UNT Dallas was strictly business and his goals consisted of earning A’s. Berkowitz’s resolve resulted in his name appearing on the dean’s list multiple times, with challenging classes like microbiology, organic chemistry and physics.
Berkowitz is applying to several graduate schools with programs in prosthetics. In Texas, there are just two — UT Southwestern Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
He learned how to drive with a specially designed car, which made it possible for him to travel to and from UNT Dallas’ campus in South Dallas.
Berkowitz hopes to compete in the Paralympic Games in snowboarding. He was an avid snowboarder, before the accident, who regularly made trips to Colorado and New Mexico for the sport.
Ups and downs with prosthetics
Although prosthetics have advanced with technology, there are still challenges.
“It’s been challenging,” Berkowitz said. “There are times when I can walk a mile and other times that I can barely walk to my car.”
Berkowitz is currently going through physical therapy workouts while waiting to get approved, by insurance, for better-fitting prosthetics.
“You have to get new prosthetics because the socket doesn’t fit and you can’t utilize your muscles in a certain way,” Berkowitz said. “Prosthetics will be a medical necessity for the rest of my life.”
A woman named Susana Pieniek, a Dallas-area Realtor and project manager who knows Berkowitz’s family, has started a GoFundMe to help with his new prosthetics, medical bills and living expenses. He’s currently medically uninsured. The goal is $25,000.
“I really appreciate Susana’s efforts. If we can get to the goal, I can get some new prosthetics and move the next phase of my progress. I’m very optimistic,” Berkowitz said.