Ailing pope in hospital for tests

Stricken by flu, John Paul has trouble breathing, Vatican spokesman says

`Urgent,' not in intensive care

Pope, 84, had canceled this week's appointments

February 02, 2005|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - Three days into a bad bout with the flu that made it hard for him to breathe, Pope John Paul II was rushed to a hospital late yesterday after canceling most of his week's appointments, the Vatican said.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told Italian state TV station RAI that the pope suffered a "breathing crisis" and was hospitalized for treatment. Another report said his throat was inflamed, his respiratory tract infected, and he had a fever.

Navarro-Valls said the pope was not in intensive care but would undergo tests.

The "urgent" hospitalization was primarily a "precaution," Navarro-Valls said.

But it apparently took many at the Vatican by surprise. Cars with Vatican license plates began pulling up at the hospital only after John Paul arrived.

Although the 84-year-old pontiff is afflicted with a number of ailments, including a semi-crippling form of arthritis and Parkinson's disease, he is rarely forced to abandon his home quarters for the hospital.

He had not missed a scheduled weekly audience because of illness in more than 16 months.

A close member of the pope's staff, American Archbishop James Harvey, said the pope had congestion and a slight fever during the day.

He said the decision to hospitalize the pope at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital was made by close aides.

The Polish-born John Paul, who became pope in 1978 and is one of history's longest-serving pontiffs, is a figure who looms large over recent history.

He is credited with having had a hand in the fall of communism in Europe, and he has diligently promoted core conservative values within the Roman Catholic Church.

The world has watched as the once-athletic and vigorous pope, who traversed the globe with visits to more than 130 countries, has physically deteriorated to a point where he cannot deliver his speeches and has trouble communicating.

He appeared somewhat healthier last year, a change attributed to improved medicines and a less taxing schedule.

Onset of flu

Then the flu hit. The pope was last seen in public on Sunday, when he made his regular noontime appearance at his window overlooking St. Peter's Square and released doves in a sign of peace. He appeared remarkably lively, but his words were barely audible.

The pope was admitted to the hospital before midnight. Gemelli Polyclinic is the same institution that has cared for him during past illnesses and after he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981.

"The flu which the Holy Father was suffering for three days this evening became complicated by an acute laryngeal tracheitis and larynx spasm crisis," a statement by Navarro-Valls last night said.

"For this reason urgent admission to Gemelli Polyclinic, which occurred at 10:50 p.m. today, was decided."

In most American hospitals, doctors would quickly insert a breathing tube in a patient with laryngeal spasms and admit the patient to an intensive care unit. X-rays would be taken with a portable machine.

Reassuring notices

Until the pope had been taken to the hospital, the Vatican had been issuing reassuring news about his condition. First word of his transfer to the hospital last night came from Italian news media.

They reported that the pope was taken to the hospital in the ambulance that is always at his ready.

The Vatican announced earlier yesterday that it had canceled the pope's engagements for the next few days.

The canceled appointments included John Paul's weekly public audience today. Besides the traditional morning gathering with the faithful, he had been scheduled to preside at a candle-blessing service in St. Peter's Basilica this evening.

Widespread illness

Rome experienced a bitter cold snap last month, and a particularly virulent strain of flu appears to be making the rounds. Italian government officials reported that about 1 percent of the population fell ill with the flu.

Vatican officials would not say whether the pope had received a flu shot.

Navarro-Valls said he could not say when the pope would be back at work. "As always with influenza, it is a day-to-day question," he told Vatican Radio.

Surgery in 1996

Outside the hospital, which overlooks the grand dome of St. Peter's and Vatican City, television cameras staked out the entrances and there were more police officers than usual but no apparent sense of urgency. The admission to the hospital appears to be the pope's first since 1996, when he had his appendix removed.

In the event of his death, a college of more than 100 cardinals - most of whom were appointed by John Paul - would convene to select his successor.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press and the New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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