NEW YORK – Crossing the finish line at Sunday’s New York City Marathon, the scarring on the left side of his head was barely noticeable. Aharon Karov, 27, completed the race in 4:14:31, an impressive feat for anyone. Especially someone who was critically injured five years ago and thought dead.
But his story begins even earlier, at a wedding.
On a cold Thursday in December 2008, Karov, then 22, married the love of his life, Tzvia, 19. They danced, sang, and did all the happy things that couples do.
The next morning at around 7 a.m., Karov, a platoon commander and 2nd Lt. in the IDF’s paratrooper unit, received a call from his superior officer informing him that there would be a war in Gaza — Operation Cast Lead — and that he was needed.
According to halacha and military law, a groom must only go to war on his wedding day for a milkhemet hova, a divinely ordained obligatory war. The operation in Gaza “was not one,” Karov recounted.
However, after long talks with his new wife, Karov decided to go to Gaza.
“In Israel, if there is a war, everyone goes because there a collectivity, a community. It was clear to me, to both of us, that I had to go,” said Karov, who had studied in a yeshiva in Netzarim, one of the communities destroyed in the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza.
Karov was a platoon commander for 30 soldiers whom he had trained throughout their army service. “I couldn’t send my men without me.”
“Of course I wanted to be home with my wife and not in Gaza,” Karov said. “You don’t know when you’re going to see your wife again, you don’t know when you’re going to speak to your wife again, but you need to put all else to the side — your wife, your family, and even yourself.”
Some ten days after his wedding, Karov and his men were tasked with sweeping six buildings for explosives. As he ascended to the second floor of one building, a booby-trap was tripped. Karov was blasted into the stairwell and the entire building crumbled on top of him.
His men, none of whom were critically injured by the blast, quickly rushed to remove the rubble from him and pulled Karov’s body out.
It was a week and a half after his wedding, and it seemed like his life was over.
Karov noted that apparently one EMT actually proclaimed him dead. Then, feeling a faint pulse and realizing that he was not, an EMT made an incision in Karov’s throat to ensure he would keep breathing.
But with eight pieces of shrapnel in his head, all of his teeth knocked out, his nose dislodged, his left eye dismembered, and his stomach and upper left side of his body completely crushed, the prospects of his survival looked grim.
Five years later and in good spirits, Karov noted, “With my good luck, it [the blast] only hit me and not the soldiers with me.”
Typically, Karov ran Sunday’s NYC Marathon not for himself, but for a cause. The money he raised, just over $40,000, will be going directly to OneFamily Fund, an organization which supports victims of terror and their families.
The organization had helped the Karov family since Aharon’s injury in 2008. All of the money Karov raised will be used exclusively to aid other victims of terror, including the five soldiers who were injured in the Gaza tunnel bombing explosion last week.
After being pulled out of the rubble which threatened to crush him to death, Karov was airlifted to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva and immediately prepped for surgery which lasted 18 hours, “just to keep me alive,” Karov said.
As reported in a 2009 YNET article, Aharon’s doctors agreed his rapid recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Trauma Unit chief at Beilinson, Professor Pierre Zinger remembered, “When he was brought in everyone was pessimistic and thought his hours were numbered. The injuries were very bad, but in the end there was no injury to the brain.”
The surgery worked. He was alive, barely. In a coma, his family had nothing to do but wait for a recovery that seemed almost impossible.
Head traumas are sensitive injuries in that you can never know what to expect. Karov’s family and doctors hoped for the best, but accepted the worst. Would he recognize his new bride Tzvia? His parents? His siblings? What would happen with his memory?
After ten days, Karov awoke from his coma.
“Waking up from a coma isn’t like waking up in the morning,” Karov said, speaking in Hebrew at an event at NYU’s Bronfman Center three days before his marathon run in New York. “Waking up is moving your hand, your feet, maybe blinking a few times, not going to shacharit [Jewish morning prayer] and then going to class!”
Though he could wiggle his right fingers and blink, Karov was a prisoner in his own body. Because of his stomach injuries, he could not eat. Because of his severe head injuries, he had no control of his cognitive functioning. He had to relearn right and left, the simple commands sit and stand.
The resilience Karov learned by never giving up and striving to succeed in the hospital were similar traits that he employed recently while training for the full marathon. For six months, he ran nearly every day, and every step he took was his way of showing the world and all of his supporters that he would get better, he would succeed.
Most frustrating of all during his recovery, however, was the fact that he could not speak.
“I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t move my hand, but I just had to go on,” Karov said.
He recalled the frustrations of being a prisoner in his won body. Laying there in his hospital bed, “I thought my new reality was in a bed, as I was.” Sometimes, he said, “You say to yourself, enough, I don’t have the strength to continue, I don’t have it in me… I want to be normal; a normal husband, have a family, and not be a burden.”
The support he received not only from his family, but from Jews around the world, gave him the strength to recover.
“All of Israel was writing me letters — haredim [ultra orthodox], dati’im [religious people], hilonim [secular Israelis], people from America, France — from all over the world,” Karov said. “Everyone wrote to me, they were praying for me, and together gave me the strength to say yes, I will beat this.”
A large group of supporters from all walks of life came out to support Karov on his run Sunday. Men and women from all over the religious spectrum cheered him on for all 26.2 miles to continue to give him strength.
Though people around the world were supporting his recovery, it still wasn’t easy.
“For three months, I couldn’t speak at all. In my head, I knew this was a chair, but I couldn’t say it.” It took another month and a half for him to emit any audible sounds.
He could not look at his new bride and compliment her, or tell her how much he loved her. He could not yet call up his soldiers and thank them for saving his life. He was still a prisoner in his mind.
Finally, after three months, Karov was able to regain control of his speech.
“When I started speaking, it wasn’t speaking, it was aleph, bet, tapuah [apple], banana…” His speech, coupled with the fact that he was able to take his first few steps, albeit with a walker, marked a new stage in his recovery.
Karov said gratefully that he has “no memory of those first two difficult months,” and only knows of it what he has been told by his wife, parents, and doctors.
Six months ago, with four and a half years of rehab now under his belt, Karov began jogging. OneFamily Fund, the organization that had helped the Karovs during the five years since Karov’s injuries, actually encouraged him to run the NYC Marathon.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Karov said. “But in the end they convinced me and so I am here,” he said speaking from New York.
Aharon will be returning home to his wife and three children in Israel later this week to resume classes at Ariel University. A religious man, Karov spoke gratefully about his lot in life and noted God’s work in the universe.
“To get to where I am despite all the hardships I went through, for me it’s a miracle and Divine Providence.”