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A relative of mine from the United States who happened to once require emergency surgery in a Jerusalem hospital (not Hadassah Ein Kerem) requested that I hire private nurses for her post-op period. "The doctors here are excellent," she commented, "but the nursing care could be better, because they seem to expect your family to help take care of you."
Fortunately, I haven't had enough personal experience in local hospitals yet to make that assessment myself. But I will admit to some tense moments during my one night in an emergency room, when my wife finally had to leave me alone to go home and watch the kids. Looking around at the other patients whose beds were surrounded by relatives was one of those times I truly felt the disadvantage of having left behind almost all my family in America.
Ariel Sharon certainly doesn't have that problem, and even if he did it wouldn't matter. In the past 10 days all of Israel has become in a figurative sense his bedside companions, even to some degree his nurses and doctors. (And I include here his political opponents as well, both Israelis and Palestinians, since they too understand how the state of the prime minister's health will crucially affect their own futures and fortunes.)
A public discourse dominated by such issues as the consequences of the disengagement, the future of the road map and the break-up of the Likud now finds itself analyzing the finer points of a cerebral stroke's impact, the dangers of using blood thinners and the results obtained by CT scans. Neurologists have replaced Middle East scholars as the resident experts on TV current affairs programs, and a gynecologist - Hadassah Ein Kerem director and spokesman Shlomo Mor-Yosef - has emerged as a national hero for his sober, terse and direct bulletins on the progress of the PM's recovery.
I WAS asked this week by a journalist how the country was coping with this current crisis, and simply repeated the oft-said (though no less true) cliche that Israelis are usually at their best when forced to rise to the challenge of a real crisis - it's the normal, day-to-day situations of any civilized society that seem to pose a real problem for them.
Anyone who's been on the scene at Hadassah Ein Kerem this week, or has regularly watched the coverage of both the local or foreign media from there, has seen ample examples of this.
I'm not talking about the expected, predictably heart-warming stories of ordinary citizens trekking up there to express their solidarity with the stricken PM; nor the unexpected side stories that have emerged from this situation, such as the truly inspiring example of Hadassah neurosurgeon Dr. Jose Cohen, who not only left a thriving practice in his native Argentina to make aliya out of true Zionistic dedication, but even chose to live for the time being in the dorms of the Hadassah medical school in order to be as close to the hospital as possible when emergency cases like Sharon are brought in.
I'm not even referring to the rare exemplary behavior of our professional political class, who for the most part have succeeded in temporarily putting aside business as usual, observing an appropriate time-out in campaign-season politicking while we wait for some true indication of the prime minister's future condition.
WHAT IMPRESSES me here, and I hope makes some impression on the rest of the world, is how the nation as a whole is dealing with a critical situation that is quite different from any other it has faced. This isn't a war, or a wave of terror attacks that requires military action and tests the public's ability to endure violence; nor is it even anything like the Rabin assassination, which called for national soul-searching and reconciliation.
In fact, the populace is being called upon, as in most bedside vigils, to do nothing except simply remain cool, calm, patient and confident that the authorities in charge are doing the best job possible. Frankly, I can't think of a tougher task for most Israelis - and so far, they're doing just fine.
A word too should be said about the exceptional honesty and openness with which the political and health establishments have approached the sensitive subject of a national leader's medical condition. By contrast take, for example, the case of Yasser Arafat; deliberate misinformation was spread by the Palestinian Authority about his health as he fell seriously ill in Ramallah, and a year after his death, we still have no clear idea how Arafat died, outside of speculative news reports.
Granted, no one really expects that kind of transparency from the PA. One would expect it, though, from mature Western democracies; yet in France the public is still being kept largely in the dark about the real state of President Jacques Chirac's health following his hospitalization last autumn.
Israel isn't entirely clean on this score, as we can well expect more and more reports in the days to come about the quality of the medical care Sharon has received, the need for even more access to the medical records of national leaders, and the wisdom of passing into law more formal succession procedures on the prime ministerial level when events such as this occur.
Although there is no enemy for Israel to confront here other than natural causes, these scenarios can sometimes test the resiliency of democracies just as much as more unnatural and more violent circumstances. Certainly that's the case now, when the stricken leader in question is such a dominant figure, falling ill at a time of serious political uncertainty at home and regional instability.
Fortunately though, if the patient's condition is critical, the nation's is stable. And though it may not have any bearing on the fate of Ariel Sharon, if I were lying in his hospital bed right now, I'd find some comfort in this life, or the next, in knowing that by my bedside the people of Israel were standing watch, praying for some good news, and steeling themselves for the worst.
The writer is former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center www.theisraelproject.org