By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon started breathing on his own Monday and moved an arm and leg slightly after doctors began the process of gradually reviving him from a medically induced coma.
Soon after doctors decreased the heavy medication that has kept Sharon unconscious since he suffered a massive stroke five days ago, the prime minister began "breathing spontaneously," said Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, where Sharon is being treated. He said the response represented "the first sign of some sort of activity in his brain."
As the level of sedation was reduced throughout the day, doctors applied pressure to parts of his body sufficient to cause pain in healthy people. Sharon, 77, reacted by slightly moving his right arm and leg, a "significant" sign of brain function, Mor-Yosef said. Sharon's blood pressure also rose as the sedation lightened, a positive response as his body emerges from anesthesia.
"These are improvements," Felix Umansky, the hospital's chief neurosurgeon and the head of Sharon's medical team, said at a news conference here. Later, he added, "It is too early to speak about cognitive function."
Doctors cautioned that Sharon, who was in poor physical shape before suffering the stroke Wednesday evening, remained unconscious and in grave condition. He is still connected to a ventilator, although doctors said he continued to breathe on his own. His life remains at risk.
Doctors expect to wean Sharon from the induced coma over several days, after which they will be able to assess possible damage to his physical and mental faculties. After the stroke, Sharon underwent three sessions of emergency surgery to stop hemorrhaging in his brain. Many outside doctors and Israeli politicians do not believe he will be able to return to office.
Last week, doctors said the left side of his brain, which controls speech and other important faculties in right-handed people such as Sharon, might not have suffered damage from swelling caused by the bleeding. Doctors said Monday that it was too soon to determine the condition of the right side of his brain, where the bleeding occurred, and urged patience during the staged reduction of sedation.
Sharon has dominated Israeli politics since his election nearly five years ago, and his incapacitation has essentially frozen campaigning for national elections scheduled for March 28. His condition has also stalled a decision of pressing concern to Palestinians, who are scheduled to elect a new parliament on Jan. 25 for the first time in a decade.
Israel has banned Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem, citing the participation for the first time of the radical Palestinian group Hamas in a national election. On Monday, however, Israeli security officials said they might allow Palestinian candidates to campaign in East Jerusalem on request, except those from Hamas and other parties that do not recognize Israel. The announcement was greeted skeptically by many Palestinian politicians.
The Palestinian information minister, Nabil Shaath, said Monday that the Bush administration assured him recently that Israel would allow voting in the city.
"Now hopefully the elections will take place without any problems," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis. He said he was also briefed on the agreement.
But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which manages U.S. diplomacy with the Palestinians, said no assurances had been given.
"The subject of voting in East Jerusalem is high on our agenda, and we are engaged in the issue," said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, the spokeswoman. "But we did not make these comments" to Shaath.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said that "the issue is still in play and is being dealt with intensively at the working level."
He said the agreement under which Palestinians in East Jerusalem participated in past elections is being used as the basis for a deal that would "allow Palestinians to vote in greater Jerusalem while ensuring Israeli sovereignty in the city and not enabling a terrorist organization to participate."
"I believe there can be an agreement," Regev said. "It's possible."