- Associated Press - Thursday, March 14, 2013

LONDON (AP) - The new pope has daunting challenges ahead ranging from the church sex abuse scandal to reinvigorating the flock.

And the 76-year-old Francis will have to do it all with just one whole lung.

The Argentine pontiff underwent surgery as a young man to remove “a good part” of an infected lung, according to his authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. “He feels it today,” says Rubin. “He’s a little bit slowed by it, but he’s OK.”

Doctors said that losing part of a lung doesn’t necessarily compromise the pope’s health or reduce his life span, though it means no strenuous exercise since he no longer has as much air capacity as people with two lungs.

“He probably wouldn’t be able to run marathons, but I don’t think that would be on his schedule,” said Dr. Peter Openshaw, director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London. “Having one lung should be enough as long as there is no other disease in that lung.”

It was initially reported that Francis lost an entire lung, but the Vatican said Thursday that he had only lost part of one. It provided no further details.

The pope’s sister, 65-year-old Mariana Elena Bergoglio, said her brother doesn’t appear sick at all.

“Not in the least … he’s totally healthy,” she said.

Bergoglio’s nephew, Jorge, says the pope was 19 when he had the lung operation.

Openshaw said Francis’ whole lung would probably have expanded to fill the space left by the partial one, and that his rib cage would have shrunk slightly in size. His diaphragm may also have moved up slightly higher than normal. But none of those changes should affect Francis’ normal activities, he said.

He said the pope’s full lung should be able to compensate for the partial one, similar to how parts of the brain may pick up functions of other regions damaged by a stroke.

“The other lung can gain capacity but there will be limits,” he said, comparing it to a car engine that now runs slightly slower. “You may not be able to accelerate as hard but it still works just as well.”

Some who have worked with Pope Francis said he is still very energetic. “His lung capacity is diminished, logically, but this hasn’t affected him at all or kept him from carrying forward all of his activities,” said Federico Wals, spokesman for the Buenos Aires diocese where the new pontiff previously presided as archbishop. “He always shows this incredible force. It seems like the diminishment gives him more power.”

Experts said it would be rare nowadays to remove or cut away part of a lung. Antibiotics would be used to treat most lung infections including tuberculosis, though part of the organ might be removed to treat advanced lung cancer.

Back when Francis had part of his lung removed, the available antibiotics weren’t as powerful. “In the past, doctors used to try all kinds of strange things to try to treat lung infections,” said Dr. Jennifer Quint, a respiratory expert at London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She said physicians even used to stick ping pong balls into peoples’ lungs in an attempt to starve the lung of oxygen, to kill the bacteria.

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