Papal Fall Changes Papal Plans

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

Papal Fall Changes Papal Plans


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


Pope John Paul II will never ski again. And he is unlikely to climb any more mountains. Three weeks before his 74th birthday -- May 18 -- he slipped and fell getting out of his bath. It was 11 p.m. Thursday, April 28.

Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the official papal doctor, was soon on the scene. An X-ray examination revealed that John Paul had broken his right femur, or thighbone. A mild sedative enable him to sleep through the night. It was thought he would be better prepared for surgery if he were properly rested.

Next morning at 10 he was taken to the Gemelli Hospital. He is getting to know the place well: This was his sixth stay there. The official medical bulletin, signed by four physicians, said simply: "Tests given at the hospital confirmed the earlier diagnosis of a fracture of the right femur. The pope then underwent surgery for arthro-prosthesis. The operation lasted about two hours."

It was all very formal. Gianfranco Fineschi, who performed the surgery, attempted a joke: "From now on the pope will not have the hip that God made but one a bioengineer made."

Back in the Vatican press office, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, whose medical qualifications insure a good command of technical vocabulary, insisted that the pope's general health remained good. He "absolutely excluded the possibility of the pope's losing consciousness or feeling sick, either before or after the fall." In other words, the fall was an accident, such as might happen to anyone in bare feet on those slippery Roman marble floors. Yet, this is the second fall in six months. After addressing the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization November 14, 1993, John Paul moved to his right, but an aide called him the other way and the pope missed a step, falling heavily on his right shoulder and dislocating it.

He got up unaided, paused for a moment, and then continued to shake hands and bless with his left hand. Again Navarro-Valls insisted there had been no blackout. A night in the Gemelli Hospital was enough to put the right shoulder back in place. So even if neither fall had anything to do with the orange-sized growth removed in the July 15, 1992, operation, it is fair to ask whether the aging pope is not somewhat accident-prone. Professor Corrado Manni, chief anesthetist during all the pope's operations, tried last December to explain why John Paul often seems listless in the morning and then brightens up in the course of the day. The truth is, he said, "the pope leads an infernal life, getting up at 5:30 in the morning and working a 17-hour day."

He has the constitution of an ox, Manni went on, but with the years and the overwork he has imposed on himself, "there are bound to be signs of tiredness."

In Manni's opinion the pope should try to lead a quieter life. he once said, "Holy Father, couldn't you work a little less?" To which the pope replied with astonishment, "You mean, still less." In his own mind, he has already made too many concessions to his medical advisers.

John Paul will now have to spend two to three weeks convalescing in the Gemelli Hospital. The immediate consequence is that he will miss the end of the Synod for Africa May 8. But since the end of the synod is not really a "conclusion," this does not much matter.

Much more important is whether he will be able to go to Africa in 1995 to "promulgate" the post-synod exhortation written up in the meantime. …

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