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Sharon’s condition gradually improving

By Ravi Nessman THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

JERUSALEM – With Ariel Sharon’s condition gradually improving, doctors hoped yesterday to completely remove him from sedatives soon – a process that could take a day and a half – so they can assess what brain damage he suffered from a massive stroke.

New polls showed that Sharon’s Kadima Party would easily win March 28 elections and had even gained strength since the popular prime minister fell ill a week ago. With Sharon in critical but stable condition, the fight to choose his successor began in earnest.

Kadima officials floated the idea of giving Sharon the top slot on the party’s election list, while keeping acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its candidate for premier. The unlikely proposal was strongly debated by Israeli politicians yesterday in a sign that the country’s vibrant political life was reviving after grinding to a halt because of Sharon’s stroke.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his party’s Cabinet ministers to resign from the government Thursday, a long-planned move that he put off after Sharon’s stroke, Israeli media reported.

Sharon’s doctors said his condition had improved slightly and they were trying to wean him off the sedatives that kept him in an induced coma, though he remained on a low dose of sedatives yesterday afternoon. Sharon, 77, has been unconscious for a week, since suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4.

Dr. Yoram Weiss, one of the prime minister’s doctors, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that after the sedatives are stopped it would take several days to determine the extent of brain damage Sharon sustained.

“We’re talking about a long, slow and drawn-out process and we hope that it will always develop positively. It’s very hard to say what the pace will be,” he said.

Israel Radio said it would take 36 hours for the drugs to exit Sharon’s system. But hospital spokesman Ron Krumer said it was impossible to give a precise timetable. As of 11 p.m. yesterday, Sharon had been unconscious for a week – 168 hours.

As the sedatives are stopped, doctors will be watching Sharon. One of his neurosurgeons, Jose Cohen, said most patients open their eyes within three weeks after sedation and the sooner this happens the better. However, Sharon was certain to have sustained some cognitive damage, he said.

“There will be changes, there’s nothing you can do about that. There will be changes, but what changes, nobody knows,” Cohen told Israel TV.

Since doctors began decreasing the sedatives Monday, Sharon started breathing on his own and moved his right arm and leg and his left arm in response to pain stimulation, responses Cohen described as “quite good.” Movement on Sharon’s left side could be significant because it is controlled by the right side of the brain, where his stroke occurred.

“We expected a serious weakening on the left side of the body, but we were surprised to see him move his left side. That means that maybe the damage on the right side of the brain is not quite as bad as we thought at first,” Cohen said.

Sharon’s doctors said Tuesday that he was out of immediate danger, but Cohen cautioned against premature optimism.

“The prime minister’s life is still in danger. He suffered a serious stroke, period,” he said. “Until we have passed a few more stages, we are still very cautious, We know that although every day we are getting further out of danger, we are still in danger.”

As Sharon’s condition becomes clearer, doctors will decide whether he can return to his post or if the Cabinet must choose a replacement.

Olmert has worked to project an air of stability, holding Cabinet meetings and assuring the country the government was functioning. He spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday and gave him an update on Sharon’s condition.

Previously, Olmert had been seen as an unlikely candidate for prime minister, but his calm stewardship this week has turned him into the clear front-runner in the election.

A poll for Channel 10 TV and the Haaretz daily projected an Olmert-headed Kadima would win 44 of 120 parliament seats, assuring it would lead the next government. The poll showed Labor taking 16 seats and Likud winning 13. Pollsters questioned 640 voters but did not give a margin of error.

Kadima politicians cautioned against reading too much into the poll. “We know about the limitations of these polls,” lawmaker Haim Ramon told TV. “This just says that it depends on what we do. This week we acted well.”

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