Heading the ICU, Prof. Sorkin treated PM Menachem Begin, was with PM Yitzhak Rabin on the day of his assassination, and cried with victims of terror.
When Professor Patrick Sorkin, 67, walks the halls of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, he gets asked questions mainly having to do with religion. He is asked about the kashrut of the food at the hospital, where the synagogue is, about circumcision procedures, and so on. The veteran doctor's physical features are impressive – he has a long beard and wears a black kippah. His appearance makes it difficult for most people to comprehend that he is actually the head of the intensive care unit at the Tel Aviv hospital – a secular institution if ever there was one.
"One patient's wife asked for the head of the department. I arrived, and she took one look at me and said, 'I didn't ask to speak to the rabbi.' I explained to her that I was in fact the head of the department, so she said, 'Never mind. Give me a blessing,'" he provides one example of the confusion that he elicits among his patients. "It doesn't make sense for people that a haredi person can be a doctor, not to mention the head of a department."
This month, Sorkin will retire from his demanding job, but he is not going to rest. He plans to establish an intensive care unit at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak. He refuses to rest. "The Lubavitcher rebbe said that a Jew is never allowed to retire. As long as a person is alive, he has to work. I don't really see myself going fishing in Acre."
Alongside treating victims of car accidents, violence and drugs, he also treated victims of terrorist attacks, and those stick out in his memory most. Especially the young victims of the 2001 attack outside the Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv, in which 21 teenagers and four adults were killed.
"When a person is ill, it is easier to accept than when you see a person get hurt while simply going to work, or going to get money from an ATM. It's very hard, because you put your emotions aside," he explains. "We treated seven or eight girls from the Dolphinarium attack, which involved mostly young people. You see the parents carrying pictures of their daughters, to show you how pretty they were, and you cry with them. You can't stand it.
"I remember going up to the roof of the hospital one time, raising my hands up and asking, 'What do you want from me? You can't see these things either.' Those were difficult years."
Q: What does it do to you?
"I live other people's hell. I hope I get a discount for that when I get upstairs," he laughs. "The job here is to see the most difficult things there can possibly be in life, but you get used to it, at the surface level.
"At first, when I was 18 and I saw someone seriously hurt I almost fainted. With time you get used to it, ostensibly. But even if you forget a little, it still stays inside you."
Q: How do you stay sane in this hell?
"Who says I'm sane?" he asks, laughing. "To work in this kind of environment for so many years you don't need to be sane. Many people who work in intensive care in Europe or the U.S. take a lot of breaks. When you live in the reality of the Holy Land, you don't get breaks, not even for a minute or two. You're in it all the time, and it affects your personality."
Q: How much does it affect you?
"Your attitude toward things that are important to other people is different. If someone complains that they are distressed over a financial problem or a personal problem you look at them and smile and think to yourself, 'What are they even talking about? That's a crisis? There is no reason to complain about that.' That is why I say that the most important thing is not your health, it's your life."
To counterbalance the heavy psychological toll, Sorkin has had quite a few success stories throughout his career – patients who pulled through against the odds and got on with their lives. Sometimes the tiniest light at the end of the tunnel makes all the difference.
I removed three quarters of her leg, her kidney, her spleen, part of her liver, part of her intestine. Today she’s married with kids.
"One of the first terrorist attacks was at Dizengoff Center," Sorkin recalls the 1990s. "A suicide bomber killed a soldier, and his sister was seriously hurt. When I saw her in the emergency room, I saw only eyes. She had burns over 80% of her body. I didn't know what to do. She was placed in a medically induced coma and I removed three quarters of her leg, her kidney, her spleen, part of her liver, part of her intestine – there wasn't much left."
But the girl survived. "She was with us for a long time," he recalls. "She regained consciousness, and now we had to go and tell her that her brother was killed. It is impossible.
"When she was out of the woods, with only half of her left, she said, 'I thank you for not telling me that my brother died. I knew, but I didn't want to hear it.' From here she was transferred to Tel Hashomer, then she had all kinds of surgeries in the U.S., and today she is married with children," he says.
A glimmer of hope
Even after 34 years in Israel, Sorkin's accent gives away his French origins. He is the son of Holocaust survivors who raised him without any religious affiliation, far from the Jewish traditions. They even wanted to avoid circumcising him. Only when he was 12 years old and wanted to join a neighbor who was preparing for a Christian ritual, did his parents explain why he couldn't.
"My grandfather, who survived Nazi labor camps and a death march, revealed my Jewish identity to me. He told me about his experiences in the camp. I didn't hear bedtime stories about princesses marrying princes, I heard stories about people who saw a dead dog on a train track and asked the SS officers if they could eat it. That is how I was brought up, not belonging to the French people or to France, and when Israel is so far away you shut yourself off."
After he began studying medicine, he started becoming religious. "I was a senior physician at a very young age, and all options were open to me. I lived a simple life – a restaurant meal here, a vacation there, spent time with friends, and suddenly I woke up and asked myself, 'Is this life?' There was no value. Then the question marks came. You are Jewish, what does it mean to be Jewish? If you want to understand, you have to go to the scriptures."
And thus, his challenging job and his religion became intertwined. He went to Friday prayer services with his phone always on him, ready to ring in the middle of a prayer and send him rushing back to the hospital. Sorkin does not let the minor clashes between religion and medicine undermine his decisions. For example, he refuses to declare brain death – he leaves that up to the other doctors. Unlike other doctors, he asks the families of patients to pray.
"The doctors and nurses treat the body, so I say that the family needs to treat the spiritual aspects. They have to pray for the well-being of the patient, and if they want I even tell them what to say. If they don't, each person says their own prayer," he says, and concedes that not everyone takes kindly to this suggestion. "I was told once by a relative, 'You are a doctor. I don't need you as a rabbi.'"
But religion only plays a part in the coping mechanism. The main aspect is, of course, the results of his lifesaving efforts. He has fought to save the lives of athletes hurt in the 1997 Maccabiah bridge collapse and has flown all the way to New Zealand to treat Israeli billionaire Ted Arison. He fondly mentions Arison's daughter, Shari Arison, who has since become one of the hospital's biggest donors.
“Doctor, don't waste your precious time on me. I'm fine. Go treat other people.” Menachem Begin
He also remembers one of his most famous patients, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "He was astonishingly modest. He was hospitalized several times in our unit and he told me one time, 'Doctor, don't waste your precious time on me. I'm fine. Go treat other people.' Where do you see that sort of thing? His family – that is the kind of Israel I want to see. Just because you are who you are doesn't mean that you have to look down your nose at everybody."
And of course there is the most traumatic case, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Sorkin was spending time with friends when he received the call on November 4, 1995. "A nurse named Mohammed called me from the intensive care unit and said, 'There was an attack on the prime minister.' I told him to stop with the nonsense. Then I took the car and drove at 140 kph [87 mph]."
When he arrived at the hospital, it was chaos. "I was interrogated by security personnel. And me, with my gall, I told one of them, 'Listen, if you had done your job I wouldn't be here.' And then I went into the operating room. I had never seen such gunshot wounds. All my surgeon friends were trying to save him, but I said, 'Listen, there is nothing we can do. There is simply nothing that can be done.' At that moment I didn't see him as a prime minister, but as a patient, and only the next day did it sink in that this was the prime minister. If you acknowledge that sort of thing while you are treating someone, you're in serious trouble."
His chosen field, intensive care, is considered an undesirable specialty in medicine. The intensity of the demands, coupled with the absence of the private practice option, have prompted the Health Ministry to declare crisis mode. But Sorkin is optimistic.
"The people who come here enjoy their work a lot, because intensive care medicine is fascinating. You look at a patient whose life is in danger, and you treat them, and thank God they get better. It's fascinating.
"On the other hand, very few doctors come back [to the field], because they understand the challenges – how hard it is in terms of the family and financially. But those who do come back, don't come back because they want a flashy career, but because they want to be real doctors treating patients, and as time goes by there are more and more of those."
Ahead of his retirement he posted a status on the hospital's Facebook page that elicited thousands of likes and enthusiastic responses: "In my job I have seen patients that everyone was sure were already gone, but they managed to get back up on their feet and get well. Therefore, take a page out of my life experience and please, never give up, never relinquish hope, keep believing in the good and in the light even in the toughest situations. And above all, remember: Life is a gift."