Doctors perform tracheotomy on pope
John Paul II recovering in hospital, officials say
ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Hours after Pope John Paul II was hospitalized with a recurrence of the flu, doctors performed a successful tracheotomy to ease the ailing pontiff's breathing, a Vatican spokesman has said.
The operation, an incision into the windpipe, took about 30 minutes and ended, without complications, at 8:50 p.m. local time (1950 GMT), a Vatican official said late Thursday.
The 84-year-old pope reportedly gave his consent for the procedure and Catholics around the world have been holding a vigil for the pontiff, lighting candles and praying.
"He's fine, and he's tranquil," said Gianna Letta, under-secretary for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"The doctors are satisfied with the way he has undergone the surgery."
The atmosphere at Gemelli Hospital in Rome was "very calm" but Letta said the doctors would spend the night in the hospital to be near their patient. (Vatican statement)
The pope was taken to the hospital on Thursday, less than two weeks after he had been released from the facility after a nine-day stay from complications of the flu.
The pontiff began feeling ill Wednesday, had a fever and was taken to the hospital for "specialized treatment" and "further assessment," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
A Polish priest close to the pope, interviewed on Polish TVN television during an evening newscast, sought to reassure viewers.
"This is not a terminal illness," the Rev. Conrad Hejno, a Dominican friar, said from Rome.
He added that people should "get used to" the fact the pope may be taken periodically to the hospital.
A tracheotomy is a routine operation that typically requires general anesthesia, but can be a risky procedure for elderly patients in fragile health, as the pope is.
"It's not the operation itself that is the concern, it's the anesthesia," said CNN senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "That's a bigger risk than the operation."
A tracheotomy is typically not the first line of therapy in this type of situation, Gupta said. Placement of an endotracheal tube -- a tube down the throat -- is usually tried first, he said.
"It could be that the area of the trachea between where the incision would be and the mouth is too inflamed."
After the tracheotomy, he is likely to be put on a ventilator and probably won't be able to speak for some time, Gupta said.
U.S. President George W. Bush, flying home from a European trip, said, "The Holy Father is in our thoughts and prayers, and we wish him a speedy recovery and return to the service of his church and all humanity."
Witnesses who saw the pope enter the hospital said he was conscious and appeared relaxed as he was rolled in on a stretcher.
The impact of the pope's long-standing fight with Parkinson's disease could also affect the operation, Gupta said.
"The same muscles affected by rigidity could affect the muscles of the upper airway," causing difficulty breathing, he said.
The pope was taken to hospital on February 1 after suffering breathing difficulties, later diagnosed as the flu complicated by an acute respiratory infection.
On Sunday, the pope read his weekly address to the faithful from the window of his Vatican apartment. A week earlier, he appeared weaker and spoke only briefly before an aide completed delivery of his address.
On Wednesday, he appeared on closed-circuit television. His voice sounded gravelly, but he appeared animated. (Full story)
On the same day he released a book where he said homosexual marriages are part of a "new ideology of evil." (Full story)
In addition to suffering from Parkinson's, the pope has a number of chronic diseases, including crippling hip and knee ailments. He has undergone nine operations -- including a hip replacement -- and survived an assassination attempt.
His latest illness reopened debate about whether popes should retire instead of reigning for life. The last pope to abdicate was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. John Paul has repeatedly said he intends to carry out his mission until the end. (Full story)
CNN's Walter Rodgers contributed to this report.