Medical striptease

Sharon is a private man, but this was hardly his first hospitalization.

hospital sharon 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
hospital sharon 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The stroke that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered last Sunday night led the news reports here in New York, right alongside reports of the pending transit strike which has incapacitated the city. Although the American media has been preoccupied with President George W. Bush's struggle against leaks involving the methods used by American intelligence to track Islamist terrorists, the state of Sharon's health roused special interest. Why? The New York City area remains the largest Jewish metropolis in the world, where Hanukka lamps complement Christmas trees in the public domain. But the focus on Sharon's health also results from the fact that movers and shakers as well as the Administration in Washington see Sharon as a pivotal player in Middle East. Everyone wants to know how Sharon will relate to the Palestinians in view of the fact that Hamas is on the ascendant and how he will respond in the Iranian nuclear danger. Consequently, I was not surprised that Jewish leaders here in New York and members of the Administration in the capital all breathed a sigh of relief when Sharon was released from the hospital after doctors gave him a clean bill of health. The physicians said the cerebral vascular incident Sharon suffered in no way undermined his capacities. Now, at the pinnacle of his career, Sharon is being forced to agree to reveal the intimate details of his medical history. It's one further obligation that comes with the job. But it makes sense, particularly in the wake of the establishment of the Kadima Party which has turned support for Sharon into a quasi-messianic movement. SOME PEOPLE don't care who knows about their medical details. There are hypochondriacs, for example, who take unflagging pleasure in performing a medical striptease. Yossi Sarid is a case in point; to this day, he still publicly obsesses over the gory details of his brain surgery. To the best of my knowledge, Ariel Sharon comes from an entirely different school, from his parents' home in Kfar Malal, where he was taught to keep medical matters to himself. This was apparent already 50 years ago, when the young Sharon was wounded twice on the battlefield - in Latrun in 1948 and in a raid on the Gaza Strip in 1955. But many years passed before Sharon was willing to talk to reporters about these wounds, because he apparently felt it would sound as if he were boasting at a time when so many other soldiers were not only wounded but killed too. Besides, it's nobody's business. I visited him in Tel Hashomer sometime in 1956 after he was injured when his vehicle overturned in the Negev on the way to a military operation. Attached to tubes, he refused to discuss his physical condition; all he wanted to talk about was the importance of continuing to fight the Fedayeen terrorism. In 1992, after Yitzhak Shamir lost the election, Sharon underwent a complicated operation on his stomach in Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer. I only learned afterwards about the agony that Sharon had suffered from the doctor who treated him. Sharon did not speak about it - not to me and certainly not to Binyamin Netanyahu who came to visit him before taking over the Likud. In those days, the media were very sparing in their reports about Sharon's health. They virtually ignored the complicated six-hour operation he underwent in the summer of 1996. It was only the devotion and skill of his physician - a Dr. Blumenthal - which saved his damaged retina. These medical events in the 1990s were apparently far more serious - and dangerous - than the mini-stroke he suffered this week. The media ignored them not only because Sharon does not make a habit of trading on his injuries and illnesses, but because during all those years, the media did whatever it could to turn Sharon into a political corpse, and didn't want to do anything too create sympathy for him. The exposure, attention and concern surrounding Sharon's stroke this week, as expressed not only in Israel but also in the United States, is yet another sign of the status he has established for himself as an extraordinary leader, without whom everything could indeed collapse. This reminds me of a horrific and terrifying moment during the Yom Kippur War on October 17, 1973 at the Suez Canal. It happened on the bridgehead after Sharon's division had crossed the canal. Hundreds of Egyptian artillery shells bombarded us. During the attack, we saw that Sharon had been wounded in the forehead. Tamir, who was sitting opposite him in the armored personnel carrier, told me: "Our friend has been injured, the division commander is gone, we have lost the war." And then, finally, we heard Sharon's voice: "Does anyone have a bandage?" With that he continued to manage the battle, ignoring the terrible pain he was in. It is no surprise that so many people breathed a sigh of relief when Sharon emerged from the hospital - without bandages. A stroke? For him - piece of cake.