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Leading Israeli Hospital in Global Spotlight

Journalists wait round- the-clock for updates on Sharon at Hadassah medical center, a site at the center of much of the nation's history.

January 10, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Shlomo Mor-Yosef moves quickly and with determination through the crowd of journalists camped out on the paved driveway of Hadassah hospital. His gaze is fixed straight ahead, flashing cameras trailing him and onlookers pointing with recognition.

Mor-Yosef, a no-nonsense, bespectacled gynecologist, has become the voice and furrow-browed face of one of modern Israel's most wrenching dramas: the life-and-death struggle of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was thrust abruptly into that role by virtue of his position as director of Hadassah University Medical Center, arguably Israel's best-known, world-class hospital.

It is fitting that Sharon's fate is being decided at Hadassah's hillside Ein Kerem complex.

The hospital has been at the center of much of Israeli history since its other complex, at Mt. Scopus, was opened in 1939 by the charitable group Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The teaching, research and treatment center has gained a reputation for tolerance because of its willingness to care for both Jews and Arabs. Roughly 20% of the patients are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, the hospital says, as is 12% of the staff. It is common to see Muslim women in hijabs sharing wards with haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The hospital was also the go-to care unit during long periods of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed and maimed thousands of Israelis. Hadassah pioneered techniques for treating bomb victims.

Its emergency-care director, Dr. Avi Rivkind, became something of a celebrity during those bloody years. Another senior physician was ambushed and killed by Palestinian gunmen as he drove home; his last patient of the day had been a Palestinian. On occasion, attacker and attacked might be undergoing treatment on the same floor, so determined was the hospital to provide care regardless of politics.

"During the intifada, this hospital became the symbol of the resiliency of Israeli society," said Calev Ben-David, former managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, referring to the Palestinian uprising. "The most attractive face of Israel can be seen here."

Ben-David, now director of the Israeli office of the Israel Project, a promotional organization, was staked out Monday in front of Hadassah, offering free sandwiches to journalists who were posted there round-the-clock in rainy, cold, gusty weather, awaiting briefings by Mor-Yosef.

Journalists have erected a bank of blue and white tents in front of the hospital and down its flanks, among the potted plants and alongside construction sites, including that of a new mother-and-child center, part of the well-funded hospital's expansion. Communications cables cross the hospital pavement like railroad tracks at Grand Central Station.

Against a fence, someone had propped up a sign, blue letters on a white background, in Hebrew and English: "Ariel Sharon! There is more to do. Please wake up." Photographers jostled for shots of two haredi men, wearing their typical black hats, long black coats and thick beards. One almost seemed to be posing with his small blond son. Nearby, a Muslim woman pushed her son in a wheelchair past the crowd and into the hospital lobby.

As a sign of Hadassah's clout, June Walker, head of the American chapter of the Hadassah Organization that supports the hospital, was one of the few outsiders granted time to see Sharon's family inside the ward. Israeli television reported that music by Mozart was being played for Sharon in the unit Monday night.

Jerusalem-born Mor-Yosef has come to embody the hospital. With Sharon languishing in a heavily guarded seventh-floor intensive-care suite, the eyes of Israel, and the world, have been trained on Mor-Yosef several times a day as he delivers the latest news on the prime minister's condition.

Mor-Yosef steps into the hospital driveway, a short distance from the emergency room entrance, and speaks in Hebrew and then, shifting slightly to face another audience, in accented English.

Even as other hospital officials and a number of doctors are sniping at one another behind the scenes over the release of information and the quality of Sharon's care, Mor-Yosef remains unflappable, doling out limited details. He may be criticized for softening the bleakness of Sharon's condition, but many Israelis find him comforting.

On Monday afternoon, dressed in a charcoal gray suit a few shades darker than his hair, Mor-Yosef explained the intricacies of pain stimulation and the basics of waking from a coma, all parts of Sharon's treatment.

Mor-Yosef does not treat Sharon. That task is the responsibility of a 20-member team of Hadassah specialists led by two Argentine-born neurosurgeons. One of them, Dr. Jose Cohen, 39, created quite a stir when he went on Israeli television to talk about his patient.

Cohen said there was a "high possibility" Sharon would live but would not be able to resume his job. Several Hadassah officials grumbled later that it was an inappropriate appearance, and one told Israeli newspapers that Cohen's relatively upbeat assessment was premature.

Israeli newspapers have been the venue of an anonymous screaming match in which non-Hadassah doctors have criticized the care Sharon has received.

Dr. Yoram Blachar, chairman of the Israel Medical Assn., on Monday scolded these physicians and suggested that jealous colleagues were trying to even scores with Hadassah.

"This festival of speculation contributes nothing to the efforts to treat the prime minister," he wrote in the Haaretz newspaper. "It takes a great deal of chutzpah, audacity and irresponsibility to criticize medical treatment ... without a single real piece of information or data backing you up."

Physicians, he concluded, "button your lips."

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