Pope rests, breathing without a respirator

Vatican official reports no signs of pneumonia

February 26, 2005|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II was resting comfortably and breathing without the help of a respirator yesterday, the day after doctors at a Rome hospital performed a tracheotomy to relieve a recurring respiratory problem.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope's heart and circulatory system remain sound and there was no sign of pneumonia, a major worry for elderly patients in poor health.

The tracheotomy involves opening a small passage through the neck to the windpipe and inserting a tube so air can flow directly to the lungs. As a result, the pope will be unable to speak for several days, Navarro-Valls said.

Although this is the ailing pontiff's second visit to the hospital in a month, and there are growing concerns about his ability to carry on as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Navarro-Valls was eager to appear upbeat about the pope's condition at yesterday's briefing for journalists.

He said the pope had a hearty appetite, consuming a caffe latte, yogurt and 10 small biscuits for breakfast.

He also said that when the pope awoke from the anesthetic after his operation, he wrote a note to his aides: "What have they done to me?"

"He meant it kiddingly, of course," Navarro-Valls said.

Still, the pope's return to the hospital just two weeks after he was discharged from a 10-day stay is hardly a good sign.

The pope was rushed to the hospital Feb. 1 after tracheal spasms caused severe breathing problems. The Vatican said he was suffering from the aftereffects of a recent flu.

He appeared to be making an encouraging recovery, but on Thursday the breathing problems returned and the pope was again taken to the hospital.

Parkinson's disease

The 84-year-old pontiff suffers from Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological condition that has adversely affected his speech, severely limited his activities and might impede his recuperation from the latest crisis.

Navarro-Valls stressed that Thursday's surgery was an elective procedure, not an emergency one.

The next major health decision could involve the tracheotomy tube.

In some patients the tube is left permanently, requiring significant changes in speech. Some people learn to talk through the tube. Another option is to briefly plug it - akin to holding your breath - and speak in short bursts.

Either choice would be complicated by the pope's Parkinson's disease, which causes hand tremors and difficulties in coordination and muscle control.

Communication issues

For the moment, Pope John Paul's only means of expression is the written word.

"This is a big problem," said Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino, mentioning the pope's temporary inability to speak. "He will find other ways to communicate - that we know already."

But Pope John Paul's health troubles will likely amplify debate among the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics on a possible resignation - which is something the pope has rejected as he draws comparisons between his suffering and essential elements of Christian faith, such as the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Earlier this month, the Vatican's No. 2 man, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, declined to rule out the possibility of resignation and said it was "up to the pope's conscience."

This could become a crucial point, some theologians and Vatican observers say. The pope's concern for the church could eventually conflict with his diminished abilities.

"Modern medicine can keep someone alive long after they can really function in this world. At the same time, the papacy has grown in importance," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, the author of a book on Vatican practices.

"Right now, he says he won't resign. But, on the other hand, if a doctor tells him, `You are going to be bedridden for the next five years and we can keep you alive but not really anything more,' then the pope could reach another decision."

In St. Peter's Square, the faithful were concerned.

"I am very worried about the pope," said Helen Reychler, a 26-year-old Belgian. "He is really like a father to us all. He is such a `human-contact' pope that when he is not there for you, you realize it very quickly. You miss that Holy Father spirit that is so comforting in this world full of anxiety."

Elisabeth Young and Anne Charlton, tourists from London, said they had been following the news on Italian television and in the newspapers.

"I reckon he is probably near the end this time," said Young, who is a doctor. "We were looking forward to seeing him at his window giving his Sunday speech, but sadly that will not happen. We will know over the next few days what is meant to be."

Navarro-Valls said it has not yet been decided whether the pope will make his customary appearance tomorrow. The next medical update is scheduled for Monday.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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