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The Pope Undergoes Emergency Surgery

Tracheostomy Performed After Respiratory Crisis

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page A01

ROME, Feb. 24 -- Doctors operated on Pope John Paul II on Thursday night, inserting a breathing tube to ease a life-threatening respiratory crisis brought on by advanced Parkinson's disease aggravated by flu symptoms.

Vatican officials said the 30-minute procedure on his throat, known as a tracheostomy, was successful. The pontiff, 84, was resting in his a regular room at the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, rather than in the intensive care unit, officials said.


A nun holds a rosary and prays outside the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, where the pope was being treated for problems associated with Parkinson's disease. (Osservatore Romano Via AP)

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Medical experts warned, however, that the aftermath of such surgery was serious in a frail, older person and could involve complications, including pneumonia.

Late Thursday, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, said the operation was intended to relieve a "narrowing" of the larynx brought on by "influenza syndrome."

"Now we are more tranquil," Navarro-Valls said after the surgery. John Paul had been released from Gemelli two weeks ago after recuperating there for 10 days -- also from the flu, according to officials.

The pope was rushed to the hospital Thursday morning after deciding not to attend a meeting with high-ranking prelates to finalize canonization of new saints. His designated substitute, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, read a message from the pope that said that in the interest of "prudence," he would observe the proceedings from his apartment, only a few yards away.

But almost immediately, the pope was placed on a stretcher and driven in an unmarked ambulance to the hospital

Police blocked reporters from approaching the building entrance, and officers took up positions on an internal staircase to bar access to the papal ward. Awnings above windows blocked the view into the pope's room. John Paul's private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, was at the pope's bedside and is the only Vatican official to hold vigil within the hospital suite.

At first, Navarro-Valls played down the seriousness of the situation and said the pope had suffered a new case of the flu and needed "specialized assistance and further tests." But Apcom, an Italian news service, quoted Vatican connections later in the day and broke Vatican secrecy with word that the pope would undergo an operation.

The Vatican said the surgery, which began at 8:20 p.m. local time, was designed to ease the passage of air into the lungs with an incision below the Adam's apple.

"The flu symptoms, which this morning caused the Holy Father to be hospitalized at the Policlinico Gemelli, in recent days have been complicated by renewed episodes of acute breathing insufficiency," Navarro-Valls said. The situation "indicated the necessity for an elective tracheotomy to ensure adequate ventilation of the patient and help resolve the laryngeal malady." (Tracheotomy is another term for tracheostomy.)

Gianni Letta, an aide to the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said the pope was "serene" when visited at the hospital after the operation.

Failure of stiffened throat muscles is a characteristic of Parkinson's disease and impedes breathing, said Corrado Manni, the retired head of Gemelli's emergency ward. In such a case, the only way to cure respiratory problems is to open a hole in the windpipe. "There are no other alternatives," he said. The pope has suffered from Parkinson's disease for a decade.

The operation nonetheless posed serious risks, including heart failure and infections that could lead to pneumonia, said Manni, who was in charge of Gemelli's emergency section in 1981 when the pope was brought in after an assassination attempt on him in St. Peter's Square.


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