Pope undergoes surgery for breathing trouble

Vatican calls tracheotomy after flu relapse a success

February 25, 2005|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VATICAN CITY - Struggling to breathe, Pope John Paul II underwent an urgent tracheotomy late yesterday after being rushed to the hospital for the second time in less than a month.

The half-hour surgery, in which doctors inserted a tube through a small hole cut in the pope's windpipe to ease his respiratory crisis, was termed a success by a Vatican official. The pope remained in a 10th-floor suite of hospital rooms.

Pope John Paul suffered serious breathing difficulties, complications from a relapse of the flu that sent him to the hospital Feb. 1 for nine days, said the official, reading a statement issued by a Vatican spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

The relapse was especially troubling because it raised concerns that the frail pontiff, 84, might fall victim to a more dangerous illness such as pneumonia, according to doctors not involved in his treatment.

The pope was breathing with the help of a respirator, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

The pope also has Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that further complicates breathing.

The Vatican official called the tracheotomy elective surgery.

Traditionally secretive when it comes to the pope's health, the Vatican dispatched an official to read a brief statement in the lobby of the Gemelli Polyclinic where the pope was treated. He took no questions.

Gianni Letta, a top aide to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, visited the pope late yesterday after the surgery and said he was "reassured" about Pope John Paul's condition. He said the pope managed a weak wave but could not speak.

The looming question in Pope John Paul's recovery will be the extent to which he will regain his weakened voice.

Communicating with his followers has always been a cherished component of the pope's ministry.

News of the new hospitalization yesterday sent alarm through Italy and much of the Roman Catholic world.

Earlier in the day, Navarro-Valls had issued a two-sentence statement that the pope had fallen ill Wednesday afternoon with the same "flu syndrome with which he had been affected in the preceding weeks."

Yesterday about 10:45 a.m., Pope John Paul was readmitted to the Gemelli hospital on the northern outskirts of Rome "for the appropriate specialized care and further tests," Navarro-Valls said.

The pope had a fever and trouble breathing, the same symptoms that sent him to the emergency room Feb. 1, church officials said.

He was conscious yesterday when he was wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher through a regular entrance instead of the emergency room, Ansa reported.

Even though the Vatican played down the seriousness of the pope's condition, concern built anew among the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics that the third-longest papacy in history was nearing an end.

"Everybody seems to be awaiting the inevitable, and with an older person who is sick it could be any day," said lawyer Kevin Doherty, a tourist visiting from Chicago who was among a few hundred people in the gray, cold St. Peter's Square yesterday as news of the pope's relapse spread. "We have to be grateful for the opportunities we can still have to be with him."

Senior church prelates did not hide their worry, either.

"Let us pray for the health of the Holy Father," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of the pope's closest confidantes, said in Milan after the funeral of the Rev. Luigi Giussani, founder of the conservative religious movement Communion and Liberation. He died Tuesday of pneumonia at the age of 82.

The decision to hospitalize Pope John Paul came although his quarters at the Vatican have been outfitted with sophisticated medical equipment.

"The fact that they can't handle it with the equipment they have says to me this is fairly serious," said the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University, who often serves as a commentator on Vatican affairs.

The pope's initial bad bout of the flu early in the month triggered severe inflammation of the trachea and made it extremely difficult for him to breathe.

He was discharged from the hospital Feb. 10 and made a high-profile trip home to the Vatican, riding through the streets of Rome in his glass "popemobile" and waving to crowds. The Vatican clearly wanted to send the signal that the Catholic leader was healed.

Since then, Pope John Paul has been convalescing and slowly easing back into routine activities. On Feb. 16, he missed the Ash Wednesday Mass that opens the penitential season of Lent. However, on Tuesday he received the prime minister of Croatia, his first official visitor since returning to the Vatican.

On Wednesday, which dawned in Rome with hailstorms and frigid rain, the pope's staff decided to keep him away from the window where he normally greets crowds each week.

Instead, a video hookup broadcast images of him to St. Peter's Square for a nearly half-hour-long Mass, during which he read a message and issued greetings in six languages.

All told, he seemed to be recovering.

But yesterday morning, he did not show up for a meeting to canonize five new saints, even as a delegation of cardinals sat awaiting him. Instead, he dispatched Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the No. 2 prelate in the Vatican, to preside over the ceremony.

A short time later, an ambulance took Pope John Paul to the hospital.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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