Attorney general hospitalized with gallstone pancreatitis

Ashcroft in intensive care after suffering severe case of the abdominal illness

March 06, 2004|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized in intensive care yesterday, suffering from a painful but treatable abdominal condition that aides said would keep him there at least several days.

Ashcroft, 61, was admitted to George Washington University Hospital on Thursday evening and diagnosed with "a severe case" of gallstone pancreatitis, the Justice Department said.

The condition develops when a gallstone blocks a passage leading from the pancreas to the small intestine, and the pancreas becomes inflamed. The problem usually clears up in a week, although it can sometimes require surgery and, in rare cases, can lead to complications and death.

Doctors at George Washington University Hospital said they needed more time to evaluate Ashcroft and make a prognosis. It's possible that Ashcroft could remain hospitalized for a month or more, medical experts said.

President Bush spoke briefly with Ashcroft by telephone yesterday afternoon, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

"Our thoughts are with the attorney general," McClellan said in Crawford, Texas. "We wish him a speedy recovery."

Seen by doctor

Ashcroft, who has had no known health problems in recent years, suddenly canceled plans Thursday to announce verdicts from a terrorism trial in Alexandria, Va., and went home, thinking he had the stomach flu. When his condition worsened, he was visited by White House physician Daniel Parks and taken to the hospital emergency room.

"After a full medical work-up in the emergency room, it was determined that he was suffering from a severe case of gallstone pancreatitis," Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement. "He was admitted to intensive care for careful monitoring and is being treated with antibiotics."

The condition, experts said, is typically resolved within a week after treatment, which includes fasting to give the digestive system a break, along with intravenous fluids.

The gallstone - formed from a buildup of bile and other chemicals in the gall bladder - often passes naturally, but in some instances has to be removed surgically or through an endoscopic procedure.

If the stone remains lodged too long, it can cause damage to the pancreas, which can lead to tissue loss and other complications.

Many people with the condition end up having their gallbladder, which stores and regulates bile used in the digestive process, removed.

About 20 percent of the 80,000 cases of acute pancreatitis each year are classified as severe, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The risk involved

Dr. John Baillie, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, said people with severe pancreatitis often stay in the hospital for a month or longer. He said there is a 10 percent to 20 percent risk of death, but those tend to occur among older people with underlying medical conditions such as kidney disease or poorly controlled diabetes.

Baillie said pancreatitis is "like a hand grenade going off, an explosion in the abdomen" that essentially shuts down the digestive system and causes a sharp internal buildup in fluids.

"It is life-disturbing. It hurts like the dickens. I have had ladies saying that bearing children was nothing compared with this," said Dr. Stanley Branch, an expert in pancreatic and biliary disorders at Duke University Medical Center. "He was pretty tough if he thought it was just a stomach flu."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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