Wounded days after nuptials, Israeli soldier gets plastic surgery in Tucson

Wounded Israeli soldier Aharon Karov lights the memorial torch at the Israel Center's Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) ceremony April 18.

The morning after his wedding on Dec. 25, 2008, Aharon Karov, a 2nd Lt. in the Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers Brigade, was called up for service in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Twelve days later, the 22-year-old platoon leader was critically wounded as his unit entered a booby-trapped building. Emergency surgery saved his life, though for days he hovered between life and death. Two IDF paramedics who treated him on the spot and in the evacuation helicopter later received medals of valor. Karov needed further surgery to relieve pressure on his brain, but suffered no permanent brain damage.

But the damage to Karov’s face was so severe — his nose had been cut off and there was damage to his lip and cheek — that the IDF ultimately decided to send him to one of the world’s foremost experts in plastic surgery, the doctor who literally wrote the book on nasal reconstruction, Dr. Frederick Menick of Tucson.

Earlier this month, Karov had the third of four facial reconstruction surgeries at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson; the first was in December. The AJP spoke with Karov on April 18 before the Israel Center’s ceremony for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, where Karov had the honor of lighting the memorial torch.

With Tucsonan Rony Ben-Dov serving as interpreter, Karov, who is now hale enough to be jogging again, explains that he could have refused to cut his wedding leave short. “Eight hours after the wedding, it was very difficult for us, but for sure I was going back,” he says, citing his obligation to defend his country. “I trained my soldiers for all these years and I wanted to be there to lead them.”

For his first two surgeries in Tucson, Karov was accompanied by his wife, Tzvia, but she stayed behind this time because she is eight months pregnant. Karov’s father, Rabbi Ze’ev Karov, and mother, Chaya, traveled with him this month. The family’s main Tucson contacts have been Rabbi Israel and Esther Becker of Congregation Chofetz Chayim. Israel Center Director Moshe Babel-Pour, who hosted Karov at his family’s last Chanukah party, also has kept in touch during each of his visits. Iris Bernstein, a Tucson urologist who was born in Israel, provided medical translation between the Karovs and Menick.

Karov, who is currently studying in an Israeli yeshiva and receiving physical therapy — he had 500 pieces of shrapnel removed from his left arm — doesn’t yet know what his future occupation will be. A question about following in his father’s footsteps as a rabbi elicits a quick “Lo!” (No), at which his father smiles fondly.

“I want to thank my doctors and all the Jews around the world who prayed for me,” says Karov, who has been surprised by the outpouring of support; in airports, people who know his story have come up to meet him and shake his hand.

His father adds that “a lot of miracles” were involved in Karov’s survival and recovery.

In a telephone interview, Menick, the plastic surgeon, calls Karov “a pretty brave fellow.”

Menick, who has treated patients from around the world, had been invited to speak at a conference of the Israel Society of Plastic Surgeons in November 2009. “Prior to my going, they asked me for some suggestions” about Karov’s treatment, he says, and later they asked about sending Karov to Tucson. While in Israel, the doctor was able to meet with Karov, who came to Tucson for his first surgery a month later.

To reconstruct Karov’s nose, Menick explains, he used skin from the soldier’s forehead, a procedure that actually dates back to ancient times in India but only became standard in the West around two hundred years ago. Menick also took a skin graft from Karov’s thigh and harvested part of his rib to replace the missing cartilage.

Karov’s forehead, though pink, is healed, says Menick, and will continue to improve. The tendency of scars to shrink, which can be troublesome in burn patients, he explains, is good in the case of foreheads. “During this last surgery I was able to throw away probably half” of the healed skin, he says. Karov’s final surgery with Menick is scheduled for August.