The Obedient Patient

Shortly after a Vatican and hospital medical team completed emergency abdominal surgery on Pope John Paul II following an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, they asked six international specialists to come to Rome as consultants. Two of those invited were from the United States, Harvard’s professor of surgery Claude E. Welch (now deceased) and I. The consultants met with the Italian doctors, examined the patient, reviewed the hospital records and issued appropriate bulletins. Newspaper and television coverage made our participation part of the public record.

While most of the other consultants believed it appropriate to provide follow-up interviews, I have always felt this should be done only if specifically requested by the patient. I therefore declined all press requests. The pope and his then-secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, wrote to me expressing appreciation for my help and discretion.

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After his return to the Vatican, Pope John Paul developed recurrent fevers and had to be readmitted to the Gemelli Hospital. I was asked to return to Rome, this time alone, and I remained there for over a month assisting in his care. Although I shall not provide medical details of this period, I am persuaded by some who knew the Holy Father well that it would be fitting to record this remarkable man’s reactions to a life-threatening and, I believe, life-changing crisis.

Many of the qualities and strengths of his personality that have so impressed the world were distilled to a very fine point in that hospital room. Even in his weakened state, he was clearly a patient intent on living; he had utter confidence that he would survive and was determined to recover as quickly as possible. He was a cooperative and obedient patient, willing to experience intrusive examinations without complaint. I cannot recall, from a lifetime’s practice of medicine, a better example of a very ill patient combining humility and inherent nobility. He had obvious respect for, and offered constant and lasting gratitude to, his doctors. His acceptance of his physically compromised condition reminded me of the daily dialogue in medicine that allows the sick to break out of their prisons of pain, and permits health workers to grow stronger by involvement in suffering and death.

During his recuperation, when long conversations became easier and personal trust had developed, I was most impressed by his range of interests. He seemed informed on many topics—from world events to modern American music, from Irish art and mythology to African sculpture. He would listen in silence, absorbing ideas and opinions, and then cite some of these early conversations to me years later. He was intensely curious, asked provocative questions and shared his convictions and optimism in poetic phrases that are still fresh in my memory. We maintained contact as I undertook various humanitarian missions and journeyed through Rome. One of those trips was heading a pontifical mission to war-torn Lebanon. The pope’s thoughtfulness and kindness never ceased to amaze me.

I was not involved in his medical care in recent years; but that he decided to express fully his own love of life to the very end, despite progressive frailty and obvious suffering, came as no surprise to me. As a physician, I am privileged to have served him in a critical period, and am now able to bear unique witness to the qualities that made Pope John Paul II a remarkable influence in an often shallow and fickle world.

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