With proper care, illness not life-threatening, doctors say

Inflammation of voice box may have caused spasms

February 02, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Specialists at university medical institutions termed Pope John Paul II's condition last night as "serious," but said that it is not necessarily life-threatening as long as doctors carefully monitor the pontiff's breathing and administer appropriate medications.

Vatican officials announced yesterday that the pope had been hospitalized as a precaution after his breathing became labored, possibly as a result of a bout of influenza. They said the pope was also suffering from "acute laryngeal tracheitis" and "larynx spasm crisis."

"What that means is that the area including his voice box and vocal cords and trachea is inflamed, presumably from a viral infection such as the flu," said Dr. Rodney Taylor, a head and neck surgeon at University of Maryland Medical Center.

He said that inflammation around the voice box may have caused the spasms, which in turn could cause the vocal cords to cramp and constrict, further impeding breathing.

Taylor said that the pope's condition could be further complicated by the fact that he has Parkinson's disease, a progressive and degenerative neurological disorder that causes loss of control over body movements. He said the pope's pulmonary system may already be weakened as a result.

Another expert, Dr. Paul Flint, a professor of otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said that while Parkinson's disease alone would not predispose the pontiff to laryngeal tracheitis, the disease does cause some patients to "have problems with their voice box, speech and swallowing."

Flint said that it is more likely that the pope's current problems were caused by some sort of viral infection.

The pontiff's advanced age - he is 84 - could also factor into his recovery, Flint said.

"Age is certainly a factor," Flint said. "And his ability to clear his own secretions will be limited by his Parkinson's."

Taylor said doctors treating the pope would probably avoid placing a breathing tube down his trachea since that area is already inflamed. However, it may be inevitable.

"Once the patient isn't breathing naturally, it sets them up for complications such as pneumonia," Taylor said.

He said rather than use a breathing tube, doctors would probably try to reduce swelling with steroids, bronchial dilators, oxygen and moist air from a humidifier.

"If he was under my care, I'd be watching him very carefully," said Taylor, who is an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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