CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ Gary Dockery's family watched at his bedside Friday for signs the life-saving lung surgery he underwent won't plunge him back into the unconscious state where he spent his last 7 1/2 years.

Dockery was alert but not speaking one day after surgeons removed infectious fluid from his lungs, said Dr. James Folkening, Dockery's physician since the policeman was shot in the head in 1988.

Dockery's lung ``isn't as improved as we would have liked to have seen,'' Folkening said, ``but we're optimistic.''

A tube to assist Dockery's breathing was removed from his throat Friday and he responded to family members when they spoke to him by moving his eyes and squeezing their hands. He also moved his arms and legs.

Those are good signs for the Dockery family, who themselves are recovering from an emotional week.

Dockery, 42, was taken to Parkridge Medical Center in Chattanooga on Sunday, dying of pneumonia. The family was given the choice of letting the pneumonia kill him or taking a chance on surgery.

Dockery had lived at a nursing home since his brain was damaged by a drunken man's bullet. He could not chew, swallow, speak or move.

The family was leaning toward letting his long suffering end when suddenly Monday he broke his 7 1/2 years of silence and went on a talking spree.

``Call it a miracle, call it a touch by great God's great hand,'' said Dockery's brother, Dennis.

For 18 hours he chatted non-stop, recalling the names of his family, friends and horses. He recounted camping and fishing trips. He asked about his home on Signal Mountain near Chattanooga. And, he spoke to his sons, who were 5 and 12 when he lost consciousness.

Dockery fought doctors urging him to sleep, but eventually he rested. After that, he only spoke phrases or one-word responses.

The family felt they should give him a fighting chance to talk again, so they permitted the surgery Thursday even though they knew it could plunge him back into unconsciousness.

Even if he never speaks again, Dennis Dockery said he was thankful for getting one more day with his brother.

``Most people don't get this opportunity. We are so thankful,'' he said.

Folkening said Dockery was receiving pain medications, which could suppress his ability to communicate for now.

Dr. David Rankine, a Chattanooga neurologist, said Dockery lingered over the years in a type of vegetative state rather than a coma. A coma is short-term and the patient is unconscious with eyes closed. After two to four weeks, if the patient doesn't die or recover, the eyes open but the person remains unconscious; doctors call this a vegetative state.

Dockery's ability to communicate with blinks and nods encouraged doctors to try physical therapy in the two years following the shooting, but it was eventually abandoned when little progress was made.

His condition worsened in the past two or three years, Dennis Dockery said, ``like he'd given up hope.''

Doctors said his sudden turnaround could have resulted from the body fighting the infection, or Dockery's brain may have been improving all along.

``We are talking about something impressive, wonderful and unexplainable,'' Folkening said.

Dockery was shot in the forehead after answering a call in Walden, a mountain town just northeast of Chattanooga where he worked as a policeman.

The shooter, Samuel Frank Downey, now 68, was sentenced to 37 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 1998.

Downey, who is jailed near Waynesboro, said Friday in an interview with WTVC-TV that ``it was like a weight lifted off my head when I heard he could talk again.

``If he can talk again and remember, maybe he can exonerate me,'' said Downey, who has maintained the gun went off accidentally.