JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive, life-threatening stroke Wednesday and underwent lengthy surgery to drain blood from his brain after falling ill at his ranch. Powers were transferred to his deputy, Ehud Olmert.
Doctors placed Sharon on a respirator and were trying to save his life only hours before the hard-charging, overweight, 77-year-old Israeli leader had been scheduled to undergo a procedure to seal a hole in his heart that contributed to a mild stroke on Dec. 18.
Sharon’s health crisis came at a time of upheaval among Palestinian factions in Gaza and in the midst of both Israeli and Palestinian election campaigns. Sharon’s absence would halt momentum toward further peacemaking with the Palestinians and leave a major vacuum at the head of his new Kadima party, which was expected to head a government after the March 28 vote.
In a written statement, President Bush praised Sharon as “a man of courage and peace,” saying he and first lady Laura Bush “share the concerns of the Israeli people … and we are praying for his recovery.”
Israeli politicians across the spectrum expressed hopes for Sharon’s health.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger called on Israelis to read Psalms and pray for Sharon’s health. “We are very, very worried,” he said, and prayed for “mercy from Heaven.”
Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, said Sharon suffered “a significant stroke,” adding that he was “under anesthetic and receiving breathing assistance.” A few minutes later, Mor-Yosef emerged to say that initial tests showed Sharon had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in his brain.
Mor-Yosef said Sharon had “massive bleeding and was being transferred to an operating theater.”
Dr. Shmuel Shapira of Hadassah Hospital told Channel 10 TV that Sharon was taken to an operating room to drain the blood after suffering what he termed a “massive stroke.” Israeli TV said the operation would likely take several hours.
Sharon was put in an ambulance at his ranch in the Negev Desert after complaining about feeling unwell. Shapira said the stroke developed while he was being taken to the hospital, a drive of about an hour.
Sharon’s personal physician said early Thursday that he expects Sharon to emerge from surgery “safely.”
“The prime minister is currently in surgery, it is proceeding properly,” said Dr. Shlomo Segev. “We need to wait patiently. “I expect him to emerge from it safely.”
Channel 2 TV said Sharon was suffering from paralysis in his lower body. Analysts on Israeli TV stations said his life could be in danger.
The prime minister has been taking blood thinners since the first stroke to prevent another clot, but such drugs also raise the risk of cerebral hemorrhages, which account for only about 10 percent of strokes. Other possible causes of cerebral hemorrhages are ruptured blood vessels, an aneurysm, or bulge in a vessel wall that bursts, or even chronic high blood pressure.
Doctors who have not examined Sharon but are experts in the field said his chances of a full recovery are slim.
“It’s among the most dangerous of all types of strokes,” with half of victims dying within a month, said Dr. Robert A. Felberg, a neurologist at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans.
“The fact that he’s on a respirator means its extremely serious,” said Dr. Philip Steig, chair of neurosurgery at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York. However, he said that depending on the severity of the stroke, doctors may be able to sustain Sharon on a respirator for weeks.
Blood thinners may not have caused the latest stroke but could have made the bleeding worse and may account for its severity, Steig said.
Sharon is about 5-foot-7. Doctors checking him late last month said he weighed 260 pounds at the time of the first stroke but had since lost more than six pounds and was otherwise in good health.
Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon said Sharon’s authority was transferred to Olmert because the premier was under general anesthetic.
Security agents and police spread out around the Jerusalem hospital before Sharon arrived, setting up a security perimeter. Later, they surrounded Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, Olmert is to serve as acting prime minister until Sharon can resume his powers.
On Dec. 18, Sharon was taken to Hadassah Hospital from his office after suffering the mild stroke. Doctors said he would not suffer long-term effects, but they discovered a birth defect in his heart that apparently contributed to the stroke.
Sharon had been scheduled to check into Hadassah Hospital on Thursday for a procedure to repair a tiny hole between the upper chambers of his heart. Doctors said the blood clot that briefly lodged in Sharon’s brain last month, causing the mild stroke, made its way through the hole and from there to a cranial artery.
Sharon first came to prominence as an army officer, setting up a unit that fought Palestinian infiltrators in the 1950s. Advancing through the ranks of the army, he served as commander of the Gaza region after Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war, launching punishing raids.
After serving in the 1973 Mideast war, Sharon left the military and entered politics, forging the hardline Likud Party, which came to power in 1977.
As defense minister, he directed Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and was forced to step down by an Israeli commission of inquiry, which found him indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians in two refugee camps by Christian Phalangist soldiers.
Sharon re-emerged as prime minister in 2001, and two years later he reversed his course of decades of support for Jewish settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank and Gaza, promoting a plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. The pullout was completed in September.
The withdrawal fractured his Likud party, and he left it to form Kadima. He was putting together a list of candidates for the parliamentary election when he fell ill Wednesday.