Ariel Sharon dead: How Israel's 'sleeping giant' was kept in a coma for eight years

From being struck down by the stroke in January 2006 to his eventual death, the iconic leader refused to go quickly. Jeremy Laurance on Ariel Sharon's medical journey

When Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January of 2006, the immediate prognosis was bleak. Doctors operated for seven hours to try to ease the pressure from the haemorrhage in his brain, itself an indication of the severity of the injury.

Yet few were prepared to write him off. The iconic leader, the workaholic, the man possessed of bull-like strength – if anyone could come back from such a devastating attack, he would. He had seven further operations over the next few months, including the removal of a third of his large intestine after complications set in.

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It was not until the following April that ministers in the Israeli government voted unanimously to declare Sharon “permanently incapacitated” and his successor, Ehud Olmert, was promoted from acting PM to Prime Minister.

By then, it was clear there was going to be no comeback – not even for Ariel Sharon. Recovery after a stroke is notoriously unpredictable and few neurologists were prepared to dismiss the possibility at the time he was struck down.

The outcome depends on the part of the brain affected, how extensive the damage is and whether the part is permanently or only temporarily affected. Every neurologist can recount tales of incredible recoveries against the odds. Equally, they can describe people who suffered relatively slight damage at the time but who then failed to progress.

After spending months in hospital in Jerusalem, Sharon was transferred to the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre at Tel Hashomer in Tel Aviv where he remained in a “serious but stable condition” until his death.

It is remarkable he survived so long. While young victims of road accidents or other trauma can lie in a vegetative state for years after a devastating brain injury, elderly stroke sufferers normally succumb relatively quickly to an infection, blood clot or heart attack.

He was cared for in a private room on the second floor, with an armed guard outside his door. He was kept alive with a feeding tube and received regular physiotherapy, as pressure sores, blood clots and pneumonia pose the biggest threat to comatose patients.

Earlier this month it was reported that Sharon was suffering from kidney failure, affecting other major organs. This may have followed a urinary tract infection, common in elderly people who have to rely on a catheter to drain the bladder. If that is so, it is again remarkable that it did not happen sooner. That may be a tribute to the diligence of his carers.

Although the “sleeping giant”, as he was known, remained confined to his bed for the past eight years he continued to open his eyes and each day was propped up to “watch” television. Whether he could see or hear it, no one knew. However, a year ago he was taken for an MRI scan at Ben Gurion University where he was given a series of tests to determine his response to external stimuli, including pictures of his family and a recording of his son’s voice.  

Neuroscientists led by Professor Martin Monti, of the University of California, claimed the results showed “significant brain activity” in response to the stimuli, but was unable to say if Sharon was “consciously perceiving the information”. Whether the former Israeli prime minister was following the tortuous developments in the politics of the Middle East from his hospital bed we will never know.

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