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Pope recovering after surgery, Vatican says

VATICAN CITY—Ailing Pope John Paul II is under doctor's orders not to talk, but he's breathing on his own and even writing notes and jokes since his tracheotomy surgery, Vatican officials said Friday.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the head of the Catholic Church, contrary to media reports, had never been on a ventilator and that his cardiovascular system had been ruled healthy.

Navarro-Valls added that the pope had been doing well after being released from the Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital on Feb. 10—during which time he waved to well-wishers while riding through St. Peter's Square, gave Sunday blessings, met visitors and released a new book—until he again had trouble breathing Wednesday. Navarro-Valls said Thursday's surgery was elective.

"That is to say it was not an emergency," he said. "This was surgery to ensure adequate ventilation. He is now breathing better. He is relieved and does not need any mechanical ventilation."

Navarro-Valls said officials would know on Saturday whether the pope could participate in a Sunday blessing, but added that he's under orders not to talk for at least several days. He said that doesn't mean the pontiff is in bad spirits.

Navarro-Valls said that after the surgery, the pope wrote as a joke, "What have they done to me?"

German magazine Der Spiegel reported Friday that the pope, when told Thursday of the minor nature of the tracheotomy, responded by saying, "Minor? Depends for whom ..."

Navarro-Valls said the pope had a good night's sleep after the surgery and awoke with a healthy appetite: He had 10 small biscuits, yogurt and cafe latte for breakfast. Experts said that's a positive sign.

"Well done, I'd say," said Dr. John Henry, a professor of emergency medicine at Imperial College in London. "It shows he's tough. And with the paper that keeps flowing out of the Vatican under his name, it seems he's still sharp. He's not out of the woods, not with Parkinson's. But it's a good sign."

Henry said he hasn't treated the pope, but he's familiar with the effects of a tracheotomy. He said having a breathing tube isn't necessarily a bad thing and that if the pope lives for some time, the tube might simply become part of what people expect to see when he appears.

"He'd have to cover it when speaking, but he could live with it in, and if it helps with getting air to the lungs, that might be the plan," he said.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told Italian news agency Ansa that the pope is doing well.

"The operation was a success, and there are no dangers," he said. "I am confident."

Not all observers were. Bruno Bergamasco, the head of the neurosciences department at Turin University, said Friday that there are a number of risks for the pope right now.

"The flu is very dangerous for a man with Parkinson's," he said. "Very dangerous. For many, the flu is what caused those with Parkinson's to die."

Bergamasco said the pope's relapse could mean his immune system is failing. And his inability to sit upright and his difficulty in speaking recently could indicate fluid in the lungs.

"This would be the end," Bergamasco said.

Some experts predicted it would be months before the pope would be able to speak again. But Thomas Gasser, a professor of neurology at Tuebingen University in Germany, said the pope's speech could return soon after doctors remove the tube. Every case is different, though, he added.

"The pope has very advanced and severe Parkinson's, and there may be a time when his medication fails to work," Gasser said. "And there is the imminent risk of pneumonia for anyone with trouble swallowing."

Chosen in 1978, John Paul II is the third longest serving pope in church history and the longest-serving of the 20th century.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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