Pope Francis undergoes bowel surgery under general anesthesia

ROME (AP) Pope Francis underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a hernia in his abdominal wall, the latest ailment to afflict the 86-year-old pontiff who had part of his colon removed two years ago.

The Vatican said there were no complications following the three-hour surgery, during which Francis was under general anesthesia. The 86-year-old pope was supposed to stay for several days at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. As a precaution, all papal hearings have been canceled through June 18, the Vatican said.

Although hernia operations are rarely performed as an emergency, the procedure appeared quite urgent, scheduled just a day after Francis went to the hospital for tests. No doubt the pontiff’s doctors also wanted to give him plenty of time to recover in view of a busy travel schedule by the end of the summer.

The pope suffered from a painful and worsening hernia that had formed over a previous scar, presumably as a result of his 2021 colon surgery. Experts said the hernia formation, called incisional hernia, is a known complication of intestinal surgery. The concern is that part of his intestines may have swollen through the tear and become trapped.

Francis went to the hospital on Tuesday for unannounced tests, returned to the Vatican and presided over the hearing on Wednesday morning, but then went directly to Gemelli for the next procedure.

When the intestines are trapped, the blood supply to the intestines is impaired. And if you don’t take care of it, your intestines will die and you’ll have gangrenous intestines, said Dr. Walter Longo, chief of colon and rectal surgery at Yale University School of Medicine.

He said Francis should be fine after a few weeks of recovery, but noted the aging pope is already frail. There is a risk of having surgery, operating on a frail individual, but if he can get over it, he will be fine, he said.

Francis remains at the head of the Vatican and the 1.3 billion strong Catholic Church, even while unconscious and in hospital, according to canon law.

In July 2021 Francesco spent 10 days at the Gemelli to remove 33 centimeters of large intestine. In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Francis said diverticulosis, or swellings in his intestinal wall, prompted him to return to surgery.

After that surgery, Francis complained that he hadn’t responded well to the general anesthesia used in the longer-than-expected procedure. That reaction partly explained his refusal to have surgery to repair strained knee ligaments that forced him to use a wheelchair and walker for over a year.

Dr Manish Chand, a professor of surgery at University College London who specializes in colorectal surgery, said the surgery itself is usually simple but requires general anaesthesia. In the procedure, a surgeon typically frees the trapped intestine and then repairs the hernia and implants a prosthesis, most likely a piece of mesh.

He said the biggest problem afterward would be pain management and making sure the wound healed properly.

In the first six weeks after this type of surgery, you’re at risk of having it come back again, she said. To avoid this, patients are advised not to do anything strenuous.

Dr Robin Phillips, professor emeritus of colorectal surgery at Imperial College London, pointed out that abdominal surgery can also impair lung function.

The Argentine pope had part of a lung removed when he was young. At the end of March, Francesco spent three days at the Gemelli hospital for bronchitis and was treated with intravenous antibiotics. He emerged on April 1 saying Still alive!

I suspect they’re doing it now because they fear it could get more complicated and lead to an emergency operation, which would be even more risky than leaving it alone or operating now, Phillips said.

After holding his weekly general audience, the pope was driven out of the Vatican in his Fiat 500 shortly after 11 and arrived at the Gemelli some 20 minutes later, escorted by police.

The hospitalization at the health facility will last several days to allow for the normal post-operative course and full functional recovery, the Vatican said in a statement. An update was not expected until after the procedure.

The pope appeared in good form at his audience in St. Peter’s Square Wednesday morning, whizzing around the square in his popemobile greeting the faithful. He also had two meetings ahead of time, the Vatican said.

Francis has had a busy schedule as of late, with more viewers each day. The Vatican recently confirmed a travel-packed August, when the Holy See and Italy are usually on vacation, with a four-day visit to Portugal in the first week of August and an equally lengthy trip to Mongolia starting Aug. 31.

As a sign that the trips were still ongoing, the Vatican released on Tuesday the planned itinerary for Francis’ visit to Portugal for World Youth Day events from August 2-6. The packed schedule includes all the formal meetings of an official state visit plus numerous youth events and a day trip to the Marian shrine of Fatima.

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