Mark Lavie
Journalist, analyst, author

Sharon’s medical travesty

'It is painful and difficult to imagine this little volcano of a man lying in a bed for eight years, unable to function'

What happened to Ariel Sharon is more than a tragedy. It’s a medical travesty, likely the worst one ever committed in Israel against a public figure.

The doctors’ good intentions paved the road to eight years of hell for a badly flawed Israeli hero.

There is no way of knowing whether Arik Sharon had any awareness of what was happening to him after he suffered his second stroke in January 2006. Let’s hope he didn’t.

The tragedy is that the second stroke probably never should have happened. That’s only part of the travesty.

Before I get started here, I must admit that I cannot get a doctor to confirm this on the record. Doctors tend to circle their wagons in cases like this, protecting each other and their profession. That said, several doctors I consulted have nodded in the direction of endorsing this scenario, without saying so explicitly. Likewise, several backed it up anonymously on Internet medical sites at the time.

Here’s what happened.

Sharon had a mild stroke on Dec. 18, 2005. He felt some symptoms and was rushed to the hospital. By the time he got there, the symptoms were gone.

Doctors diagnosed a thrombotic stroke. Some called it a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. In English, that means a tiny blood clot migrated to his brain and briefly blocked a blood vessel before detaching and moving on harmlessly.

Doctors took this to mean that Sharon was in danger of a serious thrombotic stroke and took off in two directions—looking for a source of the clots and starting treatment to prevent new ones from forming.

They found a tiny hole between two chambers of his heart and theorized that the clot could have passed through it on the way to his brain. Such faults are common, and it’s likely Sharon lived with this one for decades.

The doctors planned an operation to plug the hole, using a catheter, much the same procedure as an angioplasty—cleaning out clogged cardiac arteries without opening the chest. A top cardiologist explained the planned procedure to me at the time. He was confident it would solve the problem.

Before that could be done, though, they started Sharon on anticoagulants to thin his blood against new clots. Every day we got reports of a doctor administering an injection to the prime minister. In defense of the doctors, it should be noted that about 85 percent of strokes are caused by blood clots.

The heart procedure never happened. Sharon suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke on Jan. 5, 2006. He never regained consciousness. In contrast with the thrombotic stroke, this one was a rupture in an artery in his brain, causing uncontrolled bleeding.

It’s likely, as likely as things can be in medicine, that the aggressive anticoagulant treatment either caused the hemorrhagic stroke or, at the very least, worsened it by making it harder to stop the bleeding. Later it emerged that Sharon had been diagnosed with a condition that includes minor brain bleeds, as if there is such a thing—and that should have given the doctors pause to consider whether the strong anticoagulants were more dangerous than beneficial. I thought at the time that perhaps all he needed was what the rest of us take as a preventive measure against blood clots—a baby aspirin once a day.

So it’s altogether possible that the aggressive treatment Sharon received, possibly because he was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, caused his second stroke.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.

Sharon was unconscious by the time they got him to the operating room, where surgeons tried frantically to stop the bleeding and save his life. He had two operations that night.

Every few days or weeks, we would hear of another emergency operation. I lost count after eight.

Yet after each one, there was no sign of any significant cognitive brain function returning. Despite the prayers and wishes of his family, friends and supporters—medically speaking, there was never any real hope. The damage to his brain from the stroke itself and all the surgeries was extensive and irreversible.

It is painful and difficult to imagine this little volcano of a man lying in a bed for eight years, unable to function, to comment, to act. Israel TV broadcast a maudlin report of events Sharon “missed” while he was comatose, as if to accent the cruel incongruity of it all.

This was the soldier who led his special forces into Gaza and across the Jordan River on brutal retaliatory raids after Palestinian terror attacks in the 1950s, the general who took his troops across the Suez Canal on a decisive thrust against Egypt during the 1973 war, disobeying orders. This was the defense minister who led Israel into a disastrous war in Lebanon in 1982 that took nearly two decades to untangle.

This was the prime minister who changed his basic political philosophy that opposed concessions to the Palestinians and pulled out of Gaza unilaterally. Though this article isn’t about that, two observations: If Israel had tried to negotiate the withdrawal, it never would have happened, because the negotiations would still be going on. And if Sharon had not pulled out of Gaza, Israel would still have troops being killed in the Jabaliya refugee camp and settlers transported in unworldly cement-reinforced buses because of constant Palestinian attacks. It’s not as if Israel traded those hardships for rocket attacks—the Gaza rocket salvos started long before the pullout.

Even after he was forced to resign in disgrace from the Defense Ministry after the 1982 Lebanon war, Sharon was revered by many Israelis. I recall covering a Likud rally in Kiryat Malachi in 1983, when the world media was eulogizing Sharon’s political career, buried, they thought, by his grievous and deadly errors in Lebanon. At the rally, Sharon’s arrival set off a wave of cheers that rocked the building. The climax came when a man bounded onto the stage and showed the crowd his newborn baby son—named “Sharon.”

Ariel Sharon was a hero with failures. He was a man of action and accomplishments. He was loved and hated.

Yet he spent the last eight years of his life unconscious, immobile, unable to speak or act. That is the real travesty.

To honor the hero they were trying to save, his doctors should have stopped after those two emergency operations the night Sharon suffered his second stroke.

They should have let him go. For his sake, his dignity—and for ours.

About the Author
MARK LAVIE has been covering the Middle East as a news correspondent, analyst and author since he moved to Israel in 1972. Most of his work has been in radio news, starting as an anchor and reporter for Israel Radio's English-language news service and continuing as Middle East correspondent for radio networks including NPR, NBC, Mutual, and CBC in Canada, then 15 years with The Associated Press, both radio and print. He won the New York Overseas Press Club's Lowell Thomas Award for “Best radio interpretation of foreign affairs” in 1994. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is a personal look at 46 years of Israeli history, and it comes to a clear and surprising conclusion.
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