Six weeks before his 78th birthday, Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke while serving as Israel’s prime minister in January 2006.
His collapse was so sudden and complete that doctors at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem advised his family that he should be allowed to die. Yet advanced medical care has allowed him to live for another eight years – at least in the physical sense – and receive daily visits from his two sons, Gilad and Omri.
A Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, which uses X-rays to build a detailed image of the inside of a human body, found that Mr Sharon had suffered incurable brain damage from his stroke. The doctors responded by trying to minimise his suffering by placing him in a medically-induced coma.
His son, Gilad, later summarised the medical advice as: “Based on the CT scan, the game was over”.
However the two brothers insisted that their father must be kept alive. “I would never be able to forgive myself if we did not fight to the end,” wrote Gilad in a biography of his father, “Sharon: The Life of a Leader.”
Doctors then carried out an emergency operation designed to minimise the damage caused by the stroke and relieve pressure on the brain. Gilad Sharon later wrote that the initial CT scan had also been misread: on closer examination, it turned out that the brain damage was not quite as bad as had been thought.
But Mr Sharon has never emerged from his coma: he has been reduced to a permanent vegetative state and kept alive only by a comprehensive system of life support. A ventilator has breathed air into his lungs and a tube has passed essential nutrients directly into his stomach.
With these machines providing artificial breathing and feeding, it has proved possible to keep Mr Sharon alive for an extended period. He was moved to the Sheba Medical Centre, a long-term care facility near Tel Aviv, where a team of nurses kept watch, regularly moving his body to prevent pressure sores.
This form of intensive care has managed to keep Mr Sharon alive, but there has never been a chance of recovery. A hospital manager told the Israeli press that “his brain is about the size of a grapefruit,” adding: “The part of the brain that keeps his body functioning – his vital organs – is intact, but beyond that there is nothing, just fluid.”
Nonetheless, Gilad wrote that this father would occasionally respond to the presence of his sons.
“He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare,” wrote Gilad.
One MRI scan last year showed unexpected activity within what remained of Mr Sharon’s brain. With recovery ruled out, however, it was only a matter of time before he deteriorated to the point where even life support machines and constant care may not save him.