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Pope Hospitalized With Flu Complications

Move Is 'Precaution' After Pontiff Develops Breathing Problems

By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; Page A14

ROME, Feb. 2 -- Pope John Paul II was hospitalized late Tuesday for inflammation of the windpipe and difficulty in breathing, complications of influenza that he developed over the weekend, the Vatican announced.

The hospitalization was ordered "mainly as a precaution," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the papal spokesman. Officials said the pope, 84, was in a 10th-floor suite he had used on previous visits to the medical center, not an intensive care unit.

Pope John Paul II, 84, with one of the doves that was released into St. Peter's Square after a prayer for peace on Sunday, his most recent public appearance. (Plinio Lepri -- AP)

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

A Vatican official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the pope was undergoing various tests.

John Paul ascended to the papacy in 1978 as a notably vigorous man. In his early years as pope, he was known for jogging in the papal gardens and taking secret ski trips. But he suffered gunshot wounds in an assassination attempt in May 1981, and through the 1990s he developed a variety of debilitating illnesses. They include serious knee and hip problems and symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

But keeping up a busy schedule, including foreign travel, despite the pain and anguish of advanced disease has become a trademark of his papacy in recent years. He can no longer walk, and at times he sits slumped over in the wheeled throne that carries him to public outings, his face stiff and eyes glazed.

At other times, he appears to rally and to be engaged, alert and clearly enjoying his contact with the faithful as he makes his way among them during audiences at St. Peter's.

The ups and downs of the pope's health are closely watched in Italy, where he can be seen on state television every Sunday as he gives his weekly greeting to a crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square. Most of his public appearances are also carried on television news broadcasts here.

The pope's last public appearance was on Sunday, when he spoke to pilgrims and tourists from the window of his apartments overlooking St. Peter's Square. He smiled broadly and appeared to laugh when, in a peace ceremony with two children, two doves were released from the window but flew back inside before an aide got them airborne again. He was hoarse but appeared to be in good spirits.

On Monday, the Vatican announced that he had been suffering from flu since the previous day. Audiences scheduled for Monday were canceled. It was the first time since September 2003 that the pope had skipped an audience because of illness.

Navarro-Valls played down the severity of the illness on Monday. "He has joined the more than a million Italians who have come down with the flu," the papal spokesman said. Vatican Radio described it as a mild case.

On Tuesday morning, officials extended the cancellation of public activities. Navarro-Valls told Vatican Radio that papal appointments would be put off "for the next days. I can't, naturally, predict if we're talking one day or three days. Logically, it will be a temporary, short-term postponement."

Italian news media first reported the hospitalization Tuesday. As reporters gathered outside the clinic, the Vatican released basic details about the illness. Policy at the Holy See is to be sparing in how much is said about the pontiff's health.

Tracheitis is a swelling of the trachea, a portion of the breathing passage between the larynx and the bronchial tubes. Most cases of tracheitis are caused by viruses, rather than bacteria, although as a precaution patients may be given antibiotics, which target bacteria.

Patients also sometimes receive humidified air and are observed for potential breathing difficulties in case the trachea becomes so swollen that the patient has trouble breathing. In that case, supplemental oxygen can be provided with a ventilator.

Older patients are often at greater risk, because people generally have lower energy reserves as they age. Older people tire more easily, their respiratory muscles tire more quickly and they may have less tolerance for biochemical imbalances caused by impaired respiration.

Vatican Radio asked Navarro-Valls Tuesday if the pope felt the good wishes of people worldwide who are concerned about his health. "I think so," he replied, "and as always, the holy father is grateful for the prayers of the faithful and of all those who love him. I think this closeness means a lot to him."

Staff writer David Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

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