Doctors perform tracheotomy on pope to ease breathing problems

VATICAN CITY (AP) Pope John Paul II was resting in the hospital early Friday after being rushed from the Vatican by ambulance and undergoing a tracheotomy to ease a breathing crisis brought on by a recurrence of flu-like symptoms his second health emergency in a month. The pope was reportedly breathing with the help of a respirator, but an aide to Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the pontiff was conscious and "serene" after Thursday's surgery to cut a small hole in his neck and insert a tube. Cabinet Undersecretary Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's right-hand man, told reporters at Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital that he had met the pope, who appeared well. After the operation, John Paul raised his hand and attempted to speak with doctors, but was told not to try, Letta said. "I entered Gemelli very somber and sad, and I leave very satisfied," Letta said. "Doctors are very satisfied both at how he got through the operation and in these first hours of the postoperative phase." A medical bulletin is expected around midday Friday, news reports said. At dawn, all appeared calm at the hospital. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the procedure was completed in "a positive way" and lasted 30 minutes. The tracheotomy will likely have serious consequences for the pope's abilities to carry on his duties. The operation would prevent him from being able to speak for an extended period and probably require a long hospital stay. Vatican officials said on condition of anonymity that the pope was stricken with breathing problems similar to those that sent him to Gemelli on Feb. 1, and Italian news reports said the latest respiratory crisis was even more severe than the first one. An outside medical expert said the fact the pope was hooked up to a respirator was an ominous sign. "The fact that he is on a respirator is not good. The fact that he was readmitted so quickly is not good. All this suggests there's a serious problem," said Dr. Michael Kaplitt, a Parkinson's disease expert at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Navarro-Valls said the pope had been informed of his situation and gave approval for the operation. John Paul's flu symptoms had worsened in recent days with renewed respiratory problems, leading to the decision to perform the tracheotomy, the spokesman said. Before the operation, the pope was well enough to joke with his medical team, Letta said. When doctors told the pope that the operation would be a small one, the pope retorted: "Small, it depends for whom," according to Letta, who cited doctors' accounts. ANSA reported that the pope was conscious when he arrived at Gemelli and that he was sitting upright in a stretcher. According to the report, people who saw him enter the hospital said his face looked "quite relaxed." The frail pontiff, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, had greeted pilgrims twice at the window of his studio at St. Peter's Square since his release from Gemelli on Feb. 10, and on Wednesday he made his longest public appearance since falling ill more than three weeks ago. With each successive appearance, he seemed a little stronger, a little more alert, and his voice rang out with greater clarity. That made Thursday's reversal all the more shocking for the faithful. "We are so scared because he has been sick in the past," said Vanessa Animo Bono, 32, a Roman Catholic being treated at Gemelli. Thursday's hospitalization was the pope's eighth since his election in 1978. The latest hospitalization was certain to further fuel speculation about whether he could continue as pope, and what would happen if he was incapacitated. In the clearest sign that the Vatican may be taking the eventuality of papal resignation seriously, Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Angelo Sodano declined to rule out the possibility during John Paul's first stay in the hospital this month, saying it was up to the pope's conscience. U.S. President George W. Bush, flying home from a European trip, said, "the Holy Father is in our thoughts and prayers and we wish him a speedy recovery and return to the service of his church and of all humanity." In the pope's hometown of Wadowice, southern Poland, worshippers offered prayers at an afternoon Mass in St. Mary's church, where the young Karol Wojtyla was baptized. "His suffering really moves me," said Zdzislaw Szczur, 54, the head of the Wadowice branch of Solidarity, the trade union best known abroad for its struggle in the 1980s to bring down communism. "It's all God's providence now." Associated Press

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