Ariel’s checklist

After the sudden tragic death of their son, two American Jews find purpose in warning others of the danger of heat stroke.

Mark and Ellen Newman with Ariel at his high-school graduation, a few months before his death (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark and Ellen Newman with Ariel at his high-school graduation, a few months before his death
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the fall of 2014, Mark and Ellen Newman, residents of Great Neck, New York, were looking forward to sending their only child, their son Ariel, to Israel for his post-highschool gap year abroad. While they were an extremely close and tight-knit family, especially Ariel and his father, Ellen says that it was time for Ariel “to spread his wings and fly.”
Ariel, with his family’s help, picked an intimate one-year program that combined Torah learning, community service, krav maga and a lot of hiking. Mark says they were looking for an institution that would teach “love of Torah, love of Am Yisrael and love of the Land,” instead of a classic yeshiva focused only on learning Torah in a classroom setting.
However, the worst tragedy imaginable struck the Newman family when, on his eighth day in the country, on the second day of a long hike in the Judean desert in extreme heat conditions, Ariel collapsed and died.
The medical reports indicated that Ariel’s cause of death was exertional heat stroke, along with dehydration.
EHS occurs when an individual exerts himself in severe heat, causing the body’s temperature to rise significantly.
If not treated within around 30 minutes, it can lead to widespread organ damage and failure, or death.
Ellen says that after Ariel was airlifted to a Jerusalem hospital, “doctors took his body temperature and said it had reached 109° Fahrenheit [42.7°C]. We believe his organs were already gone at that point.”
Doctors tried to revive him, but about an hour after arrival Ariel was dead.
The Newmans were devastated.
“He was the absolute center of my universe,” says Mark. Around a month after the shiva during Succot, the Newmans traveled to Israel to investigate what had gone wrong.
IT WAS during one of her sleepless nights in Israel that Ellen, researching online, discovered a broad outline of risk factors that can cause EHS. From not getting enough sleep prior to hiking, to not wearing the appropriate clothing when it is hot, and numerous other dynamics, the Newmans discovered that their son fell within the at-risk criteria.
The Newmans met with Professor Yoram Epstein, a professor of physiology at the Heller Institute of Medical Research, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, an expert on heat-related injuries and heat stroke, to discuss what had happened to Ariel.
After returning to New York, the Newmans were determined to come up with a plan of action following their loss.
“Mark and I are doers,” says Ellen, “but we didn’t know what to do. With help from our rabbi, friends, and a therapist, we asked ‘how can we give purpose to our lives?’” It was while a doctor friend of the family was discussing how physicians in hospitals keep track of patients using medical checklists to avoid mistakes that an idea developed.
“What about starting a checklist for hikers in Israel?” she suggested. “Especially tourists who arrive in the country and are not acclimated to the intense desert heat, in order to prevent the next tragedy.”
The Newmans ran with the idea. For the next 14 months, they did intense research with the help of Prof. Epstein, along with heat stroke expert Dr. Douglas Casa from the University of Connecticut.
Casa is the founder and head of the university’s Korey Stringer Institute, which focuses on the promotion of preventing sudden death in sports via health and safety initiatives. Korey Stringer was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings who collapsed and died from EHS during a summer practice in intense heat in 2001.
The finished project – Ariel’s Checklist – is a 10-step easy-to-understand safety guideline to prevent heat-related injury in Ariel’s memory.
“These 10 points are like the Ten Commandments of safety for hiking,” says Mark.
THE ONE-page checklist is available in English and Hebrew, with a longer and more detailed version in English. An expanded Hebrew version is in the works.
Mark explains that “the shorter version is for the hikers themselves; the longer one is for the hike leaders.” He says that while the Health Ministry does have some safety information on hiking on its site, it is way too long.
“It [the guidelines] has to say, ‘read me,’” says Mark. “There is nothing in the world like this.”
Mark is adamant that the purpose of the guide is to prevent all heat-related suffering, citing numerous cases of injuries during hikes in Israel in recent years.
“We have had so many people talk about near-death experiences because of heat stroke,” he says.
“The word tragedy is not limited to death. We want to prevent anyone from even having to go to the hospital for dehydration or heat illness.”
Returning to Israel at the end of March of this year, the Newmans were busy introducing Ariel’s Checklist to key leaders and decision makers with the goal of raising awareness for those who need it most.
A meeting was held with Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, whose MASA Israel program oversees more than 200 long-term Israel encounter experiences, including the one Ariel was on at the time of his death. The Newmans say that Sharansky was receptive to their idea of incorporating the checklist into MASA’s bylaws, so that MASA tour providers and guides can educate themselves about hiking precautions and risks.
The Newmans met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and other MKs, as well as representatives of the Tourism Ministry, asking them to introduce legislation in the Knesset to ensure that tour operators comply with safety measures for hikers under their watch.
“This [Ariel’s Checklist] has to be institutionalized,” says Mark. A part of his suggested legislation dubbed the “Heat Safety Compliance for Tourists Law” calls for stiff fines and other penalties for tour operators who subject their clients to extreme and dangerous hiking conditions.
Another section of the legislation calls on the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to adhere to strict procedures and prevent hikers from accessing their sites if the weather conditions are determined to be too oppressive, thus making hiking dangerous.
In addition to the checklist and proposed legislation, the Newmans are working on another project, dubbed Ariel’s Oasis, which would include construction of a shady rest area with cold water available at the spot where Ariel died. Their vision is to eventually build other such areas on trails throughout the country. She says they are currently working on designs with the INPA sensitivities in mind, so as not to disturb nature along the paths.
In addition, the Newmans are putting together a practical strategy for distributing Ariel’s Checklist. Mark insists that a key step is that “we need the tour companies to buy into this.”
Ellen adds, “18-year-old students should have this [guide] in their backpacks, as should rabbis, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, and hike leaders. They should all read this.”
Mark would like to see the list make its way into the avid hiking community, through blogs and social media. The Newmans have opened a page on Facebook as a way to start spreading the word. Eventually they would like to distribute the checklist in America as well, but for now Israel is the focus.
“Ariel is still alive,” insists Ellen. “But we have to act as his guf [body] now, to accomplish things.”