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Arafat, still in coma, clings to life
Updated: 2004-11-06 22:43

Having lapsed into a coma, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was clinging to life Saturday at a French military hospital as aides voiced increasing concern about the lack of improvement in his condition.
Arafat, still in coma, clings to life
In this picture released from the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat pauses during a meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sept. 10, 2004. [AP]
Doctors said late Friday there had been no change — for better or worse — in the 75-year-old patient's health. They have yet to offer any official public diagnosis.

"The state of President Yasser Arafat's health has not worsened," Gen. Christian Estripeau told reporters camped outside the hospital. "It is considered stable since the previous health bulletin." In an equally terse statement Thursday, the hospital spokesman denied rumors that Arafat was dead.

A spokesman for Arafat, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said Saturday that further tests were being carried out and results were expected within days. There was no further appraisal from hospital officials.

In a bid to preserve calm, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia made a rare visit to the Gaza Strip for talks with rival Palestinian groups. He was accompanied by Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh, who would step in as a caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority if Arafat dies.

In Gaza City, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath denied that Arafat was clinically dead or on a life support system. But he expressed concern at the lack of improvement in Arafat's condition.

"He's in critical condition. He's not improving and that's what is really causing our anxiety," he told Associated Press Television News. "We don't have a proper diagnosis yet."

Arafat first fell ill nearly a month ago with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. He was airlifted to France from his West Bank compound in Ramallah a week ago after briefly passing out. On Wednesday his condition deteriorated and he was moved to an intensive care unit.

Early Friday, Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, confirmed that Arafat was in a coma but insisted he was "absolutely not" brain dead.

"Today we can say that, given his condition and age, he is at a critical point between life and death," she told French RTL radio. "He may or may not wake up."

The Palestine Liberation Organization's political chief, Farouk Kaddoumi, fueled confusion after visiting the hospital Friday evening by saying that information circulating about Arafat "is completely inaccurate."

He did not elaborate, but told reporters Palestinian officials agreed that only Arafat's medical team would be authorized to issue statements about his health.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Arafat's doctors told Kaddoumi they were awaiting the results of the latest blood tests before proceeding with new treatments. He said the test results were due within three days, and there was no threat to Arafat's life at this stage.

Arafat supporters remained on edge, day and night, outside the sprawling hospital. They included an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from New York who left flowers for Arafat at the front gate.

Supporters hung a large, bedsheet-sized Palestinian flag on the hospital's perimeter wall alongside messages of support.

"The intefadah will win," said one poster, using the Arabic term for the Palestinian uprising against Israel. "A resister never dies," declared another. The sidewalk was covered with melted candle wax, and roses were placed at the foot of a poster of Arafat.

Since Arafat was flown to the French hospital in southwest Paris from the West Bank on Oct. 29, his condition has largely remained a mystery.

Shahid suggested the coma occurred after he was put under anesthesia to have additional medical tests, including an endoscopy, colonoscopy and a biopsy of the spinal cord.

Endoscopy and colonoscopy, where a camera is threaded down the throat or up the colon to inspect the intestine, involves sedation but not a general anesthetic, which would induce unconsciousness. However, a spinal cord biopsy is often done under general anesthesia.

In a coma, brain cells fall asleep because they are not getting enough blood, oxygen or sugar. The condition is either repaired during the state of coma, or the patient dies.

Brain function is dulled to a certain extent for a short time in people under anesthesia, and returns once the anesthetic clears the body. But when patients are already critically ill, they may fall into a coma if their bodies do not eliminate the anesthetic properly, said brain expert Dr. Eric Braverman, director of the PATH Medical Foundation in New York.

If anesthesia was the sole cause of Arafat's coma, it is likely he will recover once the anesthetic wears off. However, if the coma was due to serious medical problems, the chances of recovery would be smaller, Braverman said.

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