Ariel Sharon’s story would provide a lesson to anyone tempted to believe that history just rolls on regardless of the efforts of the individual. A cursory glance at the events of his life (as in the newspaper today) would show the degree to which—beginning at a young age—Sharon made the very history he lived through.
And no one can live a life like that without causing controversy, all of which is being exhaustively argued out elsewhere.
However, I’d just like to take this opportunity to note his most recent achievement, one which was already referred to in this space about a year ago.
Following his stroke in 2006, Ariel Sharon was diagnosed as being in a “persistent vegetative state.” A few years later a hospital manager was quoted as saying that “the part of the brain that keeps his body functioning, his vital organs, is intact, but beyond that there is nothing, just fluid.” The definition of a vegetative state is indeed the absence of any cognitive function at all, with the brain only retaining the ability to sustain involuntary bodily functions like breathing. (This is as distinct from “brain death,” where even the ability to sustain those involuntary functions is gone, which is why brain death—when properly diagnosed—is regarded as an irreversible terminal event for a human being.)
However, the notion of the vegetative state has long spurred disagreement, involving numerous arguments—which have reached the courts in some cases— including as to whether such patients, who obviously cannot eat on their own, should be kept alive by being provided nutrition and water through a feeding tube. There have been cases, albeit rare, of patients recovering full consciousness after having being diagnosed as persistently vegetative. Ariel Sharon’s two sons, Omri and Gilad, were, it seems, staunch advocates for continued supportive care for their father. (And for a time, he was able to be cared for at home.)
In recent years, the power of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology has begun to be applied to research into whether patients diagnosed as being vegetative had any real awareness of the world around them, and any actual cognitive function. A study reported on in 2010, using these methods, found that four out of twenty-three “vegetative” patients tested showed activity in the relevant portions of their brains when they were given verbal commands such as: “Imagine you are walking around in your home.” Further, one of those four was able to effectively “answer” questions by imagining one activity for “yes,” and a different activity for “no.” To say that this was groundbreaking and turned traditional notions of the “vegetative state” on their head would be very accurate. Yet, it did not receive a vast amount of attention in the media.
Three years later, in January of 2013, it got some more attention, however, when the same methods were applied to a very famous individual. Ariel Sharon, the well-known Israeli soldier, general and prime minister, who had been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, had his head placed in an MRI machine, and was studied by Professor Martin Monti from the University of California, neuroscientists from Ben Gurion University, and an expert from Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, Israel, where the analysis took place. This is what happened:
“Scientists showed Mr Sharon pictures of his family, made him listen to his son’s voice, and used tactile stimulation to assess to what extent his brain responded to external stimuli,” [Ben Gurion University] said in a statement.
“To their surprise, significant brain activity was observed in each test in specific brain regions, indicating appropriate processing of these (stimuli).”
The researchers at Ben Gurion was therefore able to conclude that Sharon’s brain was in fact receiving information from the outside world. Further tests to determine a specific level of consciousness were not conclusive in his case. Nevertheless, one can only imagine what a vindication this was for those who loved him and for their approach to his condition.
Merely in quickly scanning the reactions to Sharon’s death today, one can come across many statements to the effect that “they should have pulled the plug on him years ago.” These come not only from his countless enemies but from people who seem generally well disposed towards him but maintain that these years lying in bed have been a waste, or even cruel. Of-course, “pulling the plug,” if people stopped to think about it, would have meant in Sharon’s case allowing him to die of dehydration or starvation (as has occurred with others diagnosed as being in persistent vegetative states). Hardly a very kind end for someone regarded by so many people as a national hero.
This writer would suggest that no one is in a position to quantify the value of the time Sharon spent these last years with people who loved him, and, for instance, what may have passed between him and his sons in moments no one else saw. And the same respect and dignity ought to be applied to others, far less famous than Ariel Sharon. He never regained the ability to speak and hold court by his bedside, but by holding on as long as he did, long enough to respond under the view of the MRI to the stimuli offered by those scientists, Ariel Sharon surely captured one more hill, planted one more flag, and in his way helped advance our understanding of human life and dignity.
May his memory be for a blessing.