For the medical profession, last week's 40th anniversary of Israel's first successful heart transplant was a festive occasion. But for one family, it brought back bitter memories - because the transplanted heart, according to the donor's family, was obtained through deceit and trickery.
Avraham Sadegat arrived at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva in December 1968 after suffering a stroke. According to his wife, Ofra, the doctors said he was doing well, but later a nurse asked her not to stay the night. "I asked a lot of questions about Avraham's situation, but the doctors answered tersely, evasively. They averted their heads, they almost wouldn't look me in the eyes."
The next day, Ofra said, she was once again told that Avraham was doing well, but that she should not stay the night. Then, when she arrived the following day, she discovered that he had been transferred to intensive care. "We kept asking questions, but no one answered."
A few hours later, doctors told her and Avraham's brother that he had died. At the same time, they heard about the transplant, but gave it no thought.
When Avraham's brother asked to see the body, the hospital refused. However, he insisted and the doctors finally gave in. The body was completely covered in bandages, "which didn't jive with a stroke, so he unwrapped the bandages, and was shocked to see the upper body empty: Instead of internal organs, there were bandages that had been stuffed inside to fill the space," Ofra said.
"They treated him like an alley cat," she said tearfully. "From the moment he entered the hospital, they apparently saw him only as a potential source of organs and not as a man in need of treatment. They only thought about how to do the deed without us knowing."
It took a few hours before the family connected the state of the body with the historic transplant. Then, they began asking questions - but the hospital insisted that Sadegat's heart had not been used.
The family then applied to three cabinet ministers, demanding to know why the heart had been taken without their consent. They did not ask for compensation; they simply wanted to know the truth.
The affair aroused a media storm, but the hospital continued to stick to its denial. Only weeks later did it finally give in and admit that Sadegat's heart had been used. But it made this admission only after the family signed a document promising not to sue.
In response, Beilinson noted it had abided by the law in force at that time, which allowed organs to be harvested without the family's consent. That is also what then-health minister Israel Barzilai told the Knesset on December 25, 1968.