Woman Who Won ‘right to Die’ Decides Instead to Choose Life

Ruth Trabelsi’s gangrenous leg was amputated Friday — probably saving her life — after the 84-year-old great grandmother won a legal victory for patients’ rights and then asserted a woman’s right to change her mind.

The Tunisian-born Trabelsi, reported Sunday to be recovering at Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, was the center of a medical drama that unfolded when she refused to sign a waiver to allow surgeons to remove her diseased leg.

Doctors warned that she would suffer a painful death very soon unless the amputation was done.

Poriya Hospital sued last week to prevent her “passive suicide” and to protect itself from malpractice suits if Trabelsi died.

The issue, which riveted national attention, was whether a patient has the right to a reject a life-saving medical procedure.

Opinion was sharply divided, mainly along religious-secular lines. The Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Lau, insisted that, according to halachah, sick persons have no right to prevent their cure.

But Dr. Ram Ishai, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, argued that the right of decision rests ultimately with the patient, as long as the patient fully understands the consequences.

The case came before Judge Oded Gershon of Nazareth District Court, which has jurisdiction over Tiberias. In a landmark decision Feb. 8, he ruled that Trabelsi could not be forced to undergo amputation.

The judge was convinced by the testimony of a psychiatrist and a geriatrics expert, who spoke to the woman and reported her to be sane, lucid and fully aware of the probable consequences of refusing surgery.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, meanwhile, appealed to the deeply religious Trabelsi to submit to surgery. Last Thursday night, she said she would.

But on learning of Judge Gershon’s ruling Friday morning, she changed her mind.

The chief rabbi persisted, reinforced by pleas from her family. The Arabic-speaking woman, who has 258 living children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, changed her mind again.

Her leg was amputated above the knee Friday. A local anesthetic was used, because Trabelsi suffers from asthma.

On Saturday, she was sufficiently alert to order family members out of her hospital room, threatening to “get out of bed and walk home” if they did not leave immediately.

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