Nick Mauriello, the 16-year-old Hauppauge wrestler battling two potentially lethal bacterial infections, made important strides toward recovery Wednesday, his doctor told Newsday.

Dr. Rahul Panesar said Mauriello was upgraded from critical to serious at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital. For the first time, Mauriello was taken off a ventilator and had his breathing tube removed.

"A major step," said Panesar, the pediatric intensive care specialist who has been treating Mauriello. "So far, he's tolerated breathing on his own. That's promising. He's cognizant. He knows who's in the room. He knows what's going on. He's sleepy, but that's partially our medication."

Panesar said that for a fourth consecutive day, blood cultures were negative, which means the antibiotics are working. If today's blood cultures are also negative (clean), Panesar said, "Then we can say confidently that we've gotten rid of the acute infection. Still, we'd keep him on antibiotics for a couple of weeks just to be sure."

Saying Mauriello has made "a dramatic recovery," Panesar speculated he possibly could be moved to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, a rehabilitation center, "as early as one more week."

Mauriello could even begin rehabilitation at home instead, "if he tolerates being off the ventilator," Panesar said. "We put in a long-term IV so that if he's capable, he can begin walking. If he does really well, he can get nursing rehab at home."

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Panesar said he did not rule out a complete recovery or exclude the possibility that Mauriello, a junior who was one of the state's top-ranked wrestlers in the 125-pound class, could fulfill his goal of wrestling in college.

"It's definitely possible that he could be an athlete again and wrestle again," Panesar said. "It's possible he can totally rebound. How possible? Time will tell."