Suffering the wear of decades

Decline: Over the years, a robust pope became frail and ill.


Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Pope John Paul II skied the Alps, hiked the Rockies and traveled the world like no pope before him. He was the only pope in modern times for whom the word "athlete" seemed appropriate.

Although today's young people may remember him only as a frail, trembling man whose head slumped to one side, their elders surely recall a robust figure who delighted in physical activity and nature. His athleticism dated to his youth in Poland, when he was a swimmer, soccer player and mountain climber.

Stories like the one told by Luigi Vecellio, a resident of the Dolomites in Northern Italy, were not unusual. In 1987, Pope John Paul surprised him by stopping to say hello while he was hiking the steep countryside.

"I didn't know what to say to the pope ... so I offered him three fungi porcini mushrooms I had just picked, and a glass of orange soda," Vecillio recalled.

But old age, hastened by an assassin's bullet, came inexorably for this pope, with the past two decades bringing a steady progression of maladies that visibly transformed him.

Even before Parkinson's disease began to hobble Pope John Paul a decade ago, he had started to accumulate a thick medical file.

On May 13, 1981, a Turkish gunman shot him in the abdomen and hand in St. Peter's Square. He was rushed to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital in Rome, where surgeons made a 13-inch vertical incision and found a cavity full of blot clots caused by the injury.

The doctors removed two portions of the pope's small intestine and repaired a damaged area of his large intestine. They also performed an intestinal bypass, equipping him with an ostomy bag until his recovery was complete.

The pope spent 20 days in the hospital convalescing.

Weeks after he was discharged, he re-entered the hospital for treatment of a viral infection. He had been running a fever, which was described as "very high." There were conflicting reports of whether the infection was related to internal injuries suffered in the assassination attempt.

In summer 1992, the pontiff underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor of the colon. Four days after the operation, he kept his traditional appointment with the faithful by recording a Sunday prayer from his bed that was played to the crowd in St. Peter's Square. "Today, I am reciting the Angelus in a hospital with the doctors and patients of this house of suffering and hope," the pope said.

Despite the medical setback, a Vatican spokesman said the pope "categorically ruled out rest." And the next summer, although he appeared drawn and tired after a visit to Mexico's humid Yucatan Peninsula, the pope took a day off during a trip to Denver to hike the high country of Estes Park.

Three months later, in November 1993, the pope fractured and dislocated his right shoulder after tripping on his robe and falling down four steps at the Vatican. The pope, who had been greeting visitors, talked on for a while before going to a Rome hospital for treatment.

The next year, he fractured his right thigh when he slipped on his bathroom floor. In yet another operation, surgeons replaced the head of his femur - or thigh bone - with a metal alloy substitute.

"The pope will, of course, not have a hip like God made, but one that a bio-engineer made," said Dr. Gianfranco Fineschi, the orthopedist who operated on him. Although the operation was successful, the pope was finally forced to give up skiing.

By the time he visited Baltimore at age 75 in October 1995, misadventure, illness and age were clearly taking their toll. Reporters had already been commenting about his stooped posture and shaking left hand. Rumors flew that he suffered from Parkinson's disease - a diagnosis the Vatican did not confirm for another six years.

His hosts in Baltimore were asked to minimize the number of stairs he had to climb and to plan rests during his otherwise hectic schedule.

Although the pope continued his worldwide touring, the next several years would bring bouts of flu, an intestinal illness and surgery to remove an inflamed appendix. Most significant, however, was the progression of Parkinson's, which attacks nerves that control movement. Gradually, tremors spread to both hands, his head dropped to his chest and his speech slurred.

Doctors who followed news of his declining health in recent weeks - a severe respiratory infection that led to the insertion of breathing and feeding tubes - remarked that he was following a course common to people with advanced Parkinson's.

Although the disease initially causes trembling and an unsteady gait, it eventually makes victims prone to infections as they lose mobility and have trouble swallowing and keeping secretions out of their lungs. Catheters and other tubes involved in treatment also provide routes for germs to enter the body, which can lead to even more problems.

This week, the pope developed a urinary tract infection, which entered the bloodstream despite antibiotic treatments and set off a perilous condition called septic shock.

Doctors following news of his medical condition said it was a textbook case: The blood vessels dilated, causing his heart to work harder and harder in a futile effort to pump blood throughout the body.

By Friday, his kidneys failed and his breathing became shallow. Yesterday, he lost consciousness and peacefully slipped away.

Sun research librarian Shelia Jackson and wire reports contributed to this article.

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