It was a commonplace bathroom fall, but it means a long convalescence for the century’s most physically active Pope: John Paul II is recovering nicely from surgery to repair a broken leg and will be hospitalized for several weeks, the Vatican said Friday.
Worse, for the dynamic, journeying John Paul, recovery will require long therapy, and it will be months before he can resume his normal, active daily life. Meantime, papal trips are canceled and stand-ins will take the Pope’s role at Vatican ceremonies.
John Paul, who will be 74 next month, has now broken bones in falls twice in less than six months. But the Vatican sought Friday to defuse concern about his general health.
“It was a banal accident, unfortunately very common when one has wet feet and is getting out of the shower,” papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro told reporters. He said the fall was the result of a slip, not dizziness or any loss of consciousness.
The Pope was “his normal, calm self” after the two-hour operation to replace the broken thighbone with a metal prosthesis, Navarro said.
Emilio Tresalti, director of the Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital and a member of the surgical team, described the Pope as “a very strong man” in “excellent health.”
“It went very well--a surgeon always knows,” said surgeon Gianfranco Fineschi, who inserted the prosthesis.
After regaining consciousness, the pontiff was wheeled to a top-floor hospital suite he knows better than he would like. “I am a music lover, and my advice to the Pope now is: ‘Andante, ma non troppo’ (moderately, but not too),” Fineschi said.
Surgeons said they replaced the ball and neck of the inverted L-shaped femur bone in the Pope’s right leg. All postoperative vital signs were normal, Navarro said.
Tresalti observed: “Fifteen years ago my mother, who’s now 73, had the same fracture and was operated on by the same surgeons. She’s very well. These are breaks which can be easily mended; it’s the classic bathroom slip.”
Friday’s arrival by ambulance marked the Pope’s sixth admission to the big Catholic teaching hospital on the northern edge of Rome.
“You have to admire my loyalty,” John Paul said in wry self-disgust as he entered the institution where, as of Friday, he had spent 106 days of his 15-year pontificate.
In Italy, hospital stays tend to be much longer than in the United States, and doctors say John Paul will remain there two to three weeks. He will then need months of therapy back home at the Vatican. Swimming, a papal favorite, will help. But skiing is out for good. So, at least for this year, is the annual week of Alpine hiking that the pontiff treasures.
John Paul fell as he left the shower in his apartment at the Vatican about 11 p.m. Thursday, Navarro said. In pain, he summoned an aide who called Renato Buzzonetti, John Paul’s personal physician.
X-rays in a small but well-equipped dispensary in the Apostolic Palace confirmed a break close to where the femur turns toward the hip. A “complete trans-cervical sub-capital fracture of the right femur with a dislocation,” doctors would declaim in a statement later.
The Pope was told that surgery would be necessary but that there was no particular urgency about getting him to the hospital. While John Paul went to bed with the aid of painkillers, which Navarro called “generic analgesics,” Buzzonetti marshaled surgeons in a round of midnight calls.
Friday morning, after about four hours of fitful sleep, John Paul concelebrated Mass with his two personal secretaries, a Pole and a Vietnamese, Navarro said.
On the 20-minute ambulance ride to the hospital he recited the rosary, by Navarro’s account.
He did not arrive in a good mood.
“I am in pain, and I am sorrowful,” he said, referring to enforced cancellation of a scheduled weekend visit to Sicily.
As his patient was being prepped for the operation, Tresalti noted: “His humor is that of someone who should have left town today and has a load of appointments which have to be canceled.”
Before the fall, John Paul was preparing to leave Friday afternoon for the Sicilian city of Catania. Vatican sources said he intended to fire new salvos there today in his war against the Mafia.
A May visit to Belgium is also being canceled, Navarro said. The Pope will also miss a Mass he was to have celebrated closing a monthlong synod of African bishops. And neither will he likely be able to participate at a consistory of cardinals he has summoned May 9-10 to discuss their church’s millennial observances.
It is still too early to know whether John Paul will be able to keep a scheduled meeting with a visiting President Clinton in early June.
John Paul’s love of exercise, honed as a priest and bishop on weekly mountain hikes in his native Poland, has survived his illnesses. Twice since breaking his arm in a fall last November, John Paul has gone skiing. The first time the Vatican didn’t announce it because it was against doctor’s orders. On the second trip, the Pope’s Polish secretary broke his collarbone.
Repeated setbacks have stalked John Paul in recent months since the November fall, when he tripped on the hem of his cassock in the Vatican. He remained overnight in the hospital for treatment of a fractured shoulder bone and a dislocated right shoulder.
Since then, history’s most traveled Pope has had to scrap a planned June trip to Lebanon for security reasons and abandon hopes of visiting the Holy Land this year.
Last Wednesday, at his last public appearance, John Paul addressed pilgrims at a general audience on the dignity of suffering.
Preaching from the Beatitudes, he said: “Earthly suffering, when it is surrounded with love, is like a bitter shell which encloses the seed of new life, the treasure of divine glory which will be conceded to man in eternity.”
Never in modern times had a modern Pope gone to a hospital outside the Vatican before John Paul was shot in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. He spent six hours on a Gemelli operating table that time and was readmitted later that summer for treatment of a virus acquired from a blood transfusion.
In July, 1992, the Pope was operated on for removal of a benign intestinal tumor. A postoperative checkup there last year showed him to be in robust health.