- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II developed a high fever today because of a urinary tract infection and was being treated with antibiotics at the Vatican, his spokesman said. The latest health setback for the 84-year-old pontiff came one day after he began receiving nutrition through a feeding tube.

“The Holy Father today was struck by a high-fever caused by a confirmed infection of the urinary tract,” spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told The Associated Press by telephone.

The pope was receiving antibiotics at the Vatican, Navarro-Valls said.

“The medical situation is being strictly controlled by the Vatican medical team that is taking care of him,” he said.

Italian media said there were unconfirmed reports John Paul had received the sacrament of the sick and dying - what used to be called the last rites or extreme unction - but Vatican officials could not be reached for comment. The sacrament was renamed to reflect that it could be received by the sick as well as the dying.

At the Gemelli Polyclinic, where the pope has been treated before, an emergency room chief said there were no plans to admit John Paul “at the moment,” the Italian news agency ANSA said.

Lights in the papal apartment above St. Peter’s Square were on until about 11 p.m., generally well past the papal bedtime.

Police cars and other vehicles were seen going in and out of the Vatican gates as the evening wore on, and a small crowd of Italians who were following news on television began gathering at the edge of the square.

Earlier, ANSA and another Italian news agency, Apcom, said the pope had suffered an alarming drop in blood pressure Thursday evening.

A urinary infection can produce fever and a drop in blood pressure as reported in the pope, said Dr. Marc Siegel, a specialist in internal medicine at the New York University Medical Center.

The pope’s risk of such an infection is heightened because he is elderly - which suggests his prostate is probably enlarged - debilitated and run down from the illness that recently sent him to the hospital, Siegel said.

Urinary infections tend to respond well to antibiotics, given either as pills or intravenously, and “I would suspect there’s a very good chance he’s going to recover well,” Siegel said.

Hospitalized twice last month following two breathing crises and with a tube placed in his throat to help him breathe, John Paul has become a picture of suffering. When he appeared at his apartment window Wednesday to bless pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, he managed to utter only a rasp.

Later that day, the Vatican announced he had been fitted with a feeding tube in his nose to help boost his nutritional intake.

The use of the feeding tube illustrates a key point of Roman Catholic policy John Paul has proclaimed: It is morally necessary to give patients food and water, no matter their condition.

As Parkinson’s disease and other ailments have left him increasingly frail, the pope has been emphasizing that the chronically ill, “prisoners of their condition … retain their human dignity in all its fullness.”

The Vatican’s attitude to the chronically ill has been apparent in its bitter condemnation of a judge’s order two weeks ago to remove a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged American woman who died Thursday.

Vatican Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, reacting to Schiavo’s death, denounced the removal of her feeding tube as “an attack against God.”

While John Paul is fully alert, some see parallels in the two cases.

Under John Paul, Vatican teaching on the final stages of life includes a firm rejection of euthanasia, insistence on treatments that help people bear ailments with dignity and encouragement of research to enhance and prolong life.

A 1980 Vatican document makes the distinction between “proportionate” and “disproportionate” means of prolonging life. While it gives room for refusal of some forms of aggressive medical intervention for terminally ill patients, it insists that “normal care” must not be interrupted.

John Paul set down exactly what that meant in a speech last year to an international conference on treatments for patients in a so-called persistent vegetative state.

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory.”

John Paul’s 26-year papacy has been marked by its call to value the aged and to respect the sick, subjects the pope has turned to as he battles Parkinson’s disease and crippling knee and hip ailments.

The Rev. Thomas Williams, a Rome-based theologian, said there are parallels between Schiavo and John Paul, based on the church teaching that such feeding is required. “In that sense, there is a great similarity,” he said.

But he pointed out that the pope has been fully conscious and running the church. Court-appointed doctors had determined that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery before her death. Schiavo’s parents had argued that she could get better and that she would never have wanted to be cut off from food and water.

It is not clear who would be empowered to make medical decisions for an unconscious pope. The pope has no close relatives, but the Vatican has officially declined to comment whether John Paul has left written instructions.

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