JERUSALEM, AP -Ariel Sharon took a small step toward recovery from a stroke, slightly moving an arm and leg in response to pain stimulation, but doctors said it would be days before they could assess damage to his brain, critical to determining the country’s political future.
An Israeli newspaper raised new questions about whether doctors’ errors might have contributed to the stroke, saying they found out too late that he was suffering from a brain disease.
Doctors at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital said Sharon’s condition did not change overnight, and he remained in critical but stable condition Tuesday morning. He was still unconscious, and doctors planned to continue reducing his level of sedation.
Israeli media reported Tuesday that Sharon had also shown movement on his left side. Hospital spokesman Ron Krumer declined to comment on the reports.
Sharon showed slight progress Monday after doctors began cutting back on the sedatives that had kept him in a medically induced coma since Wednesday’s stroke. But doctors doubt he will recover enough to resume his duties because the bleeding in his brain was extensive.
In that case, Israel’s Cabinet would have to choose a premier to serve until March 28 elections, and the campaign, on hold because of Sharon’s illness, could get under way. Acting premier Ehud Olmert was his logical successor.
Sharon had been expected to win in a landslide as head of his new, centrist Kadima Party, but without him, it would be a wide-open race. Similarly, Sharon’s absence from Mideast diplomacy, after his unprecedented unilateral pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank in the summer, could throw peace efforts into disarray.
The Haaretz daily said Sharon was suffering from a disease called cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which, in combination with blood thinners he was taking, could have increased his risk for stroke.
If doctors had known about the condition, they would not have prescribed the blood thinners, the paper said, quoting an unidentified member of Sharon’s medical team. However, the report said the condition sometimes can be diagnosed only after a brain hemorrhage.
Sharon was given the blood thinners after suffering a mild stroke on Dec. 18, but the brain condition was discovered only after the second stroke, Haaretz said.
Hadassah Hospital spokeswoman Yael Bossem Levy declined to comment on the report. “We are busy treating the prime minister and fighting for his life and nothing else,” she said.
The Palestinians’ political future, which was to be decided in Jan. 25 parliament elections, also appeared to be in limbo.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reiterated Monday that the vote would take place on time, but Interior Minister Nasser Yousef warned his security forces would not be able to protect polling stations against gunmen. Abbas’ Fatah Party fears it will be embarrassed by the Islamic militant group Hamas in the election, and there is concern Fatah-linked gangs will attack polling stations if defeat becomes apparent.
Also, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sending two envoys to the Middle East to try to resolve an Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the participation of Arab residents of Jerusalem in the election. Abbas has said such participation is a requisite for holding the election and said he had assurances from the United States that it would be allowed.
In the Gaza Strip, where Sharon is reviled for his tough policies on Palestinians, 40 masked gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant group held a demonstration against the Israeli prime minister. One held a gun to a photo of Sharon that was labeled “the killer of children” and then burned the picture.
Doctors said they won’t have a full picture of the damage Sharon’s stroke did for several days.
“We are just at the beginning of a very long way,” said his chief surgeon, Dr. Felix Umansky, briefing reporters for the first time. “It’s too early to talk about the cognitive issue.”
After the level of sedatives dropped, Sharon started breathing on his own, though he remains hooked up to a respirator. He also lifted his right hand and leg slightly in response to pain stimulation, said Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of Hadassah.
Sharon’s response is a “very important” sign and indicated that his brain stem is working, but it’s still too early to assess what impact the massive bleeding he suffered in his right brain would have on his cognitive abilities or on the left side of his body, Umansky said. Doctors hope to continue lowering the level of sedatives in Sharon’s body over the next several days.
Sharon has not yet opened his eyes — though his doctors were hoping he would do so when the sedative levels dropped further — and outside experts cautioned there is no assurance he will wake up at all.
“His chances of survival are better than if the respiratory center had been damaged, but that still doesn’t mean he’s going to survive,” said Dr. John Martin, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College in London. Martin said Sharon’s hefty weight and age work against him.
Israel TV’s Channel 2 quoted Sharon’s advisers, who are keeping watch by his side, as saying he also responded to words in some fashion, though they weren’t specific. Classical music, including Mozart, was being played in Sharon’s room. Doctors said they hoped he would respond to the music.
The doctors’ final assessment on Sharon’s brain damage will be presented to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who will then decide whether to declare the prime minister permanently incapacitated.
In the event of such a ruling, the Cabinet would have to elect a new prime minister within 24 hours from among the five sitting Kadima Cabinet ministers who are also lawmakers, said Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti.
Olmert, who is among the five, was named acting prime minister after Sharon’s stroke, and can serve in the role for 100 days, which would carry him through the elections.