updated 2/1/2006 4:42:03 PM ET 2006-02-01T21:42:03

Doctors inserted a feeding tube in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stomach on Wednesday, according to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where he is being treated for a massive stroke.

Sharon, 77, has been in a coma since he suffered a stroke on Jan. 4, and the stomach procedure was further evidence that he is likely to be incapacitated for a long time.

Long-term care specialists and a U.S. authority on comatose patients have examined Sharon in recent days. Experts say his chances of regaining consciousness or a meaningful level of activity are slim.

“Tonight Prime Minister Ariel Sharon underwent a gastrostomy, a process in which a tube is inserted into the stomach for feeding,” the statement said. “The procedure was carried out under anesthetic and was successful. The prime minister’s condition continues to be critical and stable.”

According to an extensive study on strokes and stroke care by Dr. Jose Biller and Dr. Ernesto Fernandez-Beer, quoted in “Best Practice of Medicine, 2004,” gastrostomy is indicated for patients “in whom a prolonged phase of recovery is anticipated.”

Sharon suffered what was described as a “massive stroke” with “significant” bleeding in his brain on Jan. 4, a day before he was to check into Hadassah Hospital for a procedure to correct a tiny defect in his heart that was said to have contributed to a mild stroke he suffered two weeks earlier.

Doctors have come under fire from critics who questioned whether Sharon should have been treated with massive doses of anticoagulants after his first stroke, which was caused by a small blood clot in a cranial artery. Doctors admitted that the anticoagulants made it more difficult for them to stop the bleeding from the later hemorrhagic stroke.

Recovery prognosis grim
The extensive bleeding and the lengthy operations Sharon underwent to stop it have led experts to conclude that he must have suffered severe brain damage and was unlikely to regain consciousness. If he does awaken, most say, the chances of his regaining meaningful cognition or activity are slim.

Sharon had set up a new political party, Kadima, just weeks before his strokes, and was planning to lead it in a drive for re-election in March 28 general elections. Polls showed that he was a strong favorite to win.

His close political ally, Ehud Olmert, was named acting prime minister after Sharon’s second stroke and is Kadima’s candidate for prime minister. Polls have shown the party maintaining its wide lead under Olmert.

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