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Jean Chrétien in fine form after surgery, doctor says

Former prime minister of Canada Jean Chretien delivers a speech at the 3rd Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh January 26, 2009. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA)

FAHAD SHADEED/FAHAD SHADEED/REUTERS

Jean Chrétien was jokingly threatening orderlies and teasing his neurosurgeon just hours after a successful surgery to remove a pool of blood that was putting pressure on the former prime minister's brain.

The morning after the emergency procedure, the 76-year-old was already showing flashes of his well-known wit.

"This morning he was being shaved by the orderly and he said: 'If he doesn't do a good job I'm gonna give him the Shawinigan handshake,'" said the hospital's executive director, Hartley Stern, miming a choke hold grip Mr. Chrétien once used on a protester.

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"He was in very good form."

Mr. Chrétien underwent surgery Friday at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital for a spontaneous subdural hematoma - a potentially life-threatening collection of blood between the skull and the brain.

Despite his seemingly quick recovery, his surgeon called the operation and its timing "critical."

"His symptoms were slightly getting worse and by the time I saw him I felt it was necessary to intervene immediately," neurosurgeon Jeff Golan said.

The two-hour surgery involved cutting a 10-cm incision into the skull to gain access to the injury and remove the blood that had built up on the right side of Mr. Chrétien's brain.

Mr. Chrétien was at risk of a stroke or lasting injuries to his brain if the condition hadn't been treated quickly.

"The potential was there for his life to be in danger," Dr. Golan said.

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Marc Afilalo, head of emergency at the hospital, said Mr. Chrétien's daughter contacted him and said he was having some difficulty walking.

"He felt a slight weakness on the left side," Dr. Afilalo told a news conference.

Mr. Chrétien was brought to the hospital from his home in Shawinigan, Que., where he underwent tests that detected the problem.



"We were very shocked by the diagnosis, because we didn't expect that diagnosis," said Dr. Afilalo, noting that Mr. Chrétien didn't exhibit many of the symptoms normally associated with the condition.

"He was totally lucid, totally alert and the only finding was a slight weakness of the left leg."

Usually people's cognitive functions are altered, with things like memory and state of consciousness affected,Dr. Afilalo added.

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Well-wishers were quick to send in messages to "The Boss," said long-time Chrétien aide Bruce Hartley.

"They're just starting to flood in now - from MPs, former staffers, senators, friends, colleagues," he said.

Mr. Chrétien's wife, Aline, and his brother, Michel, were also by his side, he added.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre, who worked with Mr. Chrétien for years, said the family is doing well.

"I spoke to his wife and some of his assistants, they were telling me everything was great," he said.

"Of course he needs to relax now, take his time. But it seems that everything is in order."

In a statement issued Saturday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff commented on Mr. Chrétien's high spirits when he saw the former prime minister just two weeks ago in his hometown.

"He was his usual self, with that spring in his stride of a man half his age and all the strength, vigour and sense of humour Canadians had come to see in him over the decade he served as one of our greatest prime ministers," Mr. Ignatieff said.

"I am greatly relieved to hear that his ailment was given immediate attention and that he and his family can expect him to be fully recovered soon."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also released a statement wishing the former prime minister a full recovery.

"Mr. Chrétien, I am sure, will emerge as he always has from every challenge, by winning," he said.

Doctors weren't sure what caused the injury but believe it may be linked to a fall Chrétien took earlier this year on the basement stairs of his home. It was likely the bleeding was present for at least a week or two.



"Often, in such situations, we don't know why or what is the cause," Dr. Afilalo said.

"With our aging community we see more and more of this (injury)," he said.

But many patients - particularly those Dr. Golan described as stoic and tough - will brush off symptoms like weakness until they begin to deteriorate.

"In his case, he seemed all right to himself and to his family, such that it was easy for him to put it off," he said.

Mr. Chrétien is expected to be released from hospital in two or three days, but doctors say he'll have to curb his normally vigorous lifestyle for a while.

He will be in convalescence for up to a month and the doctors expect Mr. Chrétien will make a full recovery.

"His otherwise hectic lifestyle will have to wait for a few weeks; he is going to have to rest," Dr, Golan said

This isn't Mr. Chrétien's first brush with ill-health.



In 2007, he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery for a coronary blockage, and in 1991 he had surgery to remove a nodule on his lung.

Still, Mr. Chrétien has remained active.

An enduring image of his time in politics is of him dashing up the stairs of Parliament, leaving TV cameramen and security sweating and breathless in his wake.

Nor did age slow him down.

This year he received an honorary degree from Concordia University's John Molson School of Business and attended the unveiling of his official portrait on in Parliament's Centre Block.

He also works as counsel for a law firm.

Mr. Chrétien remains an avid golfer, but Mr. Stern said the jury was still out on whether the surgery would improve his game.

"I told him that Mr. Golan's surgery was so good his golf handicap might drop by three strokes," he said.

"He was very pleased with that."

Mr. Chrétien was prime minister from 1993 to 2003.

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