"Strength of Spirit" Sustained Pope, Says Physician

Dr. Rodolfo Proietti Comments on Last Weeks of John Paul II

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ROME, APRIL 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- It is John Paul II’s «strength of spirit» that gave him strength in illness, said the director of the Gemelli Polyclinic’s emergency and admissions department.

Dr. Rodolfo Proietti headed the medical team that took care of the Pope at the Gemelli from Feb. 1-10, when he was hospitalized with flu, and from Feb. 24 to March 13.

A professor of anesthesiology, he also administered the anesthesia when the Pope underwent an emergency tracheotomy on Feb. 24, and was at his bedside hours before he died on April 2.

«I lived through an extraordinary and unmerited experience, memories of the two months that have most marked my life,» said the specialist to the publication Presenza, of Rome’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.

Proietti related his experience: «Tuesday, Feb. 1, was the moment of emergency and first admission to the Gemelli Polyclinic. The Pope suffered from laryngospasms, severe obstruction of respiratory tract, a condition of extreme urgency. We only had a few minutes to decide the appropriate therapy.

«We had to overcome all emotion; it is not the Pope but a sick person whom we must help.

«The team decides the methods of work, as we have always done.

«After 36 hours, the acute problem is resolved. That day I realized I had exceptional collaborators and the discreet but strong and affectionate support of the whole Polyclinic and of the Catholic University. On Thursday, Feb. 10, around 7:30 p.m., the Pope returned to the Vatican.»

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire after that hospitalization, Proietti spoke about his «enormous emotion,» and «the honor to look after the Holy Father and, in doing so, to understand what each patient must represent for the doctor and the way in which the doctor should live his mission.»

«I left with the awareness of having received much more than I gave,» he added.

«Thursday, Feb. 24, was the second admission to the Gemelli. It is the moment of difficult decisions. The tracheotomy was indispensable (…). The decision was shared by all the doctors of the team.»

Proietti explained to the Pope his condition, and asked him for his informed consent.

«At that moment I realized more than ever that the patient was someone altogether special; and I was conscious of my enormous responsibility. The Holy Father was informed in the minutest details. He gave his consent (‘I entrust myself to providence and to your competence’) and he asked us: ‘Will I be able to speak again?’ I replied that we would do everything possible. For many days I felt the weight of that promise,» admitted the doctor.

On Friday, March 11, there were «moments of glory» when they saw the Pope «eat — with pleasure — Sicilian sweets.»

«Our astonishment was changed into incredulity when John Paul II exclaimed, with a broad smile: ‘Good, very good. Thank you, thank you,'» said the doctor.

«At that moment, my team and I had the certainty that we had achieved all the immediate therapeutic objectives: The Holy Father swallowed normally and was able to speak. Though only a few words, they were clear, comprehensible and with a good tone of voice,» said Proietti.

And «we had confirmation of this on March 13, in the Angelus, when from the window of the 10th floor of the Gemelli, John Paul II addressed the entire world with his blessing and greeting: ‘Dear Brothers and Sisters, thank you for your visit. Witam Wadowice! [in Polish: ‘I greet Wadowice!’]. I greet the Legionaries of Christ. A happy Sunday and good week to all,» reported his doctor.

He returned to the Vatican in the afternoon, after thanking all those in charge, doctors, nuns and health staff. He also met a boy who had been admitted to pediatric oncology, and blessed him and his parents.

«When it was my turn, he thanked me three times,» said Proietti.

«Thank you, thank you, thank you,» the Pope said to his doctor.

The doctor posed the question: «Who gives the Holy Father the strength to react, to combat so many minor and major battles against illness, to overcome each crisis? His strong physical fiber? An 84-year-old body worn out by illnesses, or something else? In a moment of concern, during the days of his admission to the Gemelli Polyclinic, Sister Tobiana [one of the Polish nuns, with a degree in medicine, who looked after the Holy Father — and helped out in the hospital] came up to me and said: ‘Professor, the Holy Father’s suffering at times is of a physical nature, at others spiritual.'»

«Few words, a profound breach in the life of the most important man of the world, and at the same time a message: the strength of the spirit. This is what really sustained the Holy Father. We learned to take this strength into account. How many times had we heard it said; ‘Treat the person, not just the illness: treat the person in his physical, psychic and spiritual totality.’ John Paul II showed us that it was not just a way of speaking. He also indicated the path to follow, that is, he reminded us of the sacredness of human life,» continued the specialist.

Proietti remembered Friday, April 1, as «the moment of sorrow»; «the last crisis had begun a few hours earlier.»

Informed by the Pope’s personal physician, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, of the Holy Father’s grave conditions, Proietti was asked to go to the Vatican.

«Obviously, I rushed,» he said.

«I went into the room. The Holy Father was resting; I didn’t dare wake him up. I knelt down and remained in silence for a few minutes. When I got up, Sister Tobiana was by my side. We shook hands and she leaned her head on my shoulder (…). Our sorrow was immense, we were unable to contain our weeping (…).

«I looked at the Holy Father for the last time. His face was serene, despite the fact that his body showed the signs of the martyrdom caused by the illness. I again thought that it was the strength of the spirit.»

A strong embrace by the Pope’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and his «most kind» words of «friendship» were received by the doctor as he left the room.

«Just a few hours went by when (at 9:37 p.m. on April 2) what no one in the world would ever have wanted, occurred,» said Proietti.

On Monday, April 4, Proietti rendered his last homage to John Paul II in the Clementine Hall. Sister Tobiana greeted him.

«We know the Holy Father is alive and we kneel to pray to him. I ask for his help to show me the way. This time, I am the one who says: ‘Thank you, Holiness. Thank you, thank you, thank you,'» he said.

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