"Ten Minutes Later, He would Have Been Gone"

The Pope's condition was grave on the evening he was taken to the hospital. Here follows our reconstruction of the events.

- by Inside the Vatican staff

February 5, 2005

At about 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening, February 1, the chop of helicopter blades began to cut through the still evening air above Vatican City. It was an Italian police helicopter, equipped with special infra-red heat-sensors to pick up traffic jams in Rome's streets, or to closely track a speeding vehicle in the night.
The helicopter wheeled in a tight circle not far from the dome of St. Peter's, then followed the streets along the Vatican's high walls toward the "Agostino Gemelli" hospital, about two and a half miles from St. Peter's Square.
At about 7:30 p.m., from the Gemelli's internal heliport, another helicopter lifted off and sped rapidly toward Vatican City. Within moments, it was landing on the helicopter pad in the Vatican gardens, not far from the back wall of St. Peter's Basilica, at the very heart of the world's smallest state.
An Italian doctor, Prof. Dogliani, an expert in cardiovascular medicine, hastened from the helicopter pad toward the Apostolic Palace, where for some 500 years the bishops of Rome have had their residence. The Swiss Guards, advised of his coming, allowed him to enter. Millions of Italians heard these details on the evening of February 2, on the Italian television program "Porta a Porta" ["Door to Door"] from Giuseppe De Carli, the "vaticanista" of the most important Italian television news channel, TG1. De Carli was continually on the air informing Italians and the world about the Pope's illness and hospitalization. On the topmost floor of the Vatical palace where John Paul II has his private apartment, the Holy Father was having trouble breathing. His throat was inflamed and constricted due to a bout with the flu.
With the Pope was his most trusted advisor, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, 65, John Paul's personal secretary since 1965, since the days when John Paul was bishop of Krakow, Poland, and "don Stanislaw" was one of the fastest skiers on the slopes of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland, where he and John Paul first met.
Dziwisz, widely regarded as one of the most powerful men in the Vatican today because of his role at the Pope's side, suggested to John Paul that it might be a good idea to go to the hospital to have his breathing checked. The Pope, 84 years old, rejected the suggestion, decisively shaking his head.
He felt, evidently, that his situation was not serious enough to require hospitalization. He indicated that he wanted dinner served. Medical experts in Rome report that part of the Pope's breathing problem is due to his curved posture and general lack of mobility for a number of years. He has difficulty breathing because his lung cavity is under pressure, according to doctors.
At about 8 p.m., the Pope and Dziwisz sat down for a light dinner. Some minutes passed quietly.
Then, his inflamed throat irritated by eating he suddenly coughed and had difficulty swallowing. Soon, the Pope was gasping for breath. "The Pope had a strong feeling that he was suffocating," the veteran Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti would explain in "La Stampa" of Turin on February 3.
Soon, however, normalcy returned and the Pope could breathe again. But Dziwisz by then had summoned Doctor Renato Buzzonetti, the Pope's long-time personal physician.
Buzzonetti, too, urged the Pope to leave the Vatican and go to the hospital. The Pope still refused. He did not consider his condition that serious. An hour passed. An hour and a half. Two hours...
Then, another coughing spell in which the Pope sensed he could not breathe. At last, the Pope himself was worried. He yielded.
A papal ambulance -- yes, there is an ambulance in Vatican City -- left from a side entrance of the Vatican at 10:15 p.m., carrying the suffering Pope. (It was this same ambulance -- a 1981 gift to the Pope from then-monsignor, now-Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini -- which carried the Pope on the afternoon of May 13, 1981, to the Gemelli clinic, after Ali Agca attempted to assassinate him in St. Peter's Square.)
At the Gemelli clinic, a suite of rooms on the 10th floor is permanently reserved for the Pope in case of emergency. He has stayed there several times, beginning with the days after the 1981 shooting.
But, according to information gathered from medical staff, the Pope was not taken immediately to the 10th floor. Rather, he was taken down two floors, into the underground levels of the hopsital, where there is an intensive care unit with advanced life support equipment.
"Lo abbiamo preso per un soffio" (literally: "We got him by a breath," or perhaps better: "We caught him by a whisker") one person said. "Se arrivava 10 minuti dopo era finito" ("If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone").
(The next day, a journalist asked papal spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls whether the Pope had ever lost consciousness. "Per carità!" ("For God's sake!"), Navarro-Valls replied, suggesting that even to think such a thought was to sensationalize the situation.)
Another clinic staff member, seeing the many television cameras and satellite antenna trucks outside with their camera lenses pointed toward the 10th floor of the Gemelli clinic, commented: "E chi vi ha detto che il papa si trovi al decimo piano?" ("And who told them that the Pope is on the 10th floor?") This same person -- who, out of a sense of discretion, was hesitant to directly reveal any information about the Pope -- then added that, during those hours, John Paul might well have been two floors underground from the hospital entrance, in the intensive care unit, where no journalists were permitted to enter, strongly suggesting that that had been what actually occurred.
By yesterday, Pope John Paul II's condition had "stabilized," as the Pope's spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, put it. He is eating normally and breathing freely, Navarro-Valls said.
Thus, the official word on the Pope's health is that he is improving after a bit of a scare Tuesday night due to breathing problems brought on by a bout of the flu.
But the "unofficial" word, as we have been able to piece it together, is that the "bit of a scare" was actually a moment of real fear for the Pope's life.
We confirmed Friday, from Polish sources, that the Pope is indeed now eating small biscuits, and in fact has asked for a capuccino. So, he is on the mend.
Navarro-Valls was quite specific Friday, telling journalists that John Paul is still in charge of things in the Vatican, and "if there are things that need a decision by the Holy Father, it is the Holy Father who will make those decisions."
But he also announced the cancellation of meetings with the President of the European Union Parliament, Josep Borrell, and with US Secretary of State-designate Condolezza Rice (instead, Rice will meet with Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano on Tuesday, February 8).


What does this episode mean? (Bearing in mind, of course, that the medical situation could change again.)
In general outline, what has happened this week has opened wide two areas of speculation and concern:
(1) What will be done, and by whom, in coming weeks and months to assist John Paul to continue to carry out his duties as Bishop of Rome?
(2) What will be done to do about the general problem, in the future, of "aging pontiffs" who may be incapacitated?
There are some in Rome who have suggested that Pope John Paul, because he now has such difficulty speaking, may choose to "retire" from all public activity, ceding his executive powers to a trusted cardinal who will be a sort of "deputy Pope."
This seems unlikely.
But several cardinals are now publicly suggesting that the Pope, like all diocesan bishops, should be bound to retire at age 75. This would be an unprecedented change.
In an open letter published before the Pope's visit to Switzerland last June, theologian Xaver Pfister said the Pope should respect the normal retirement age for bishops, set by the Vatican at 75. "The media only talk about the Pope's health and no longer about what he says, which creates a credibility problem for himself and the papacy," he said. But the Bishop of Basel, Kurt Koch, said the timing of the letter was "tasteless and perfidious" and described the suggestion that the Pope should retire as "absurd."