Pope Francis’s Reduced Lung Capacity Shouldn’t Limit Work

Pope Francis, who had part of a lung removed at age 21 because of illness, probably won’t be physically restricted in any way as a result.

The only threat the 76-year-old pontiff might face from his diminished lung capacity is from pneumonia, which can be caused by common bacteria and viruses in the environment, said Blair Marshall, chief of thoracic surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

The amount of lung function at birth well exceeds what the average person needs, Marshall said. Recent scientific reports suggest the lung is able to partially regenerate when it’s damaged at an early age. The new pope’s lung issue shouldn’t restrict his travel schedule or his ability to perform the high-stress role of leading the church, she said.

“He’s had several decades to adjust to this and his other lung has taken over,” Marshall said in a telephone interview. “He’s been functioning well for decades and should have no limitations. The only risk would be if he gets pneumonia.”

Today, lung infections are almost never treated with surgery. In the mid-1950s, however, doctors didn’t have widespread access to antibiotics that are available now, and thus removing the lung was often the best option. While no specific cause has been given for the pope’s partial lung removal, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio may have had tuberculosis or necrotizing pneumonia, where bacteria destroys the lung tissue, Marshall said.

Damaged Portion

In some cases, a chronic illness may trigger so much inflammation that antibiotics traveling through the bloodstream can’t reach the site of the infection, said Sumita Khatri, a pulmonologist and co-director of the Cleveland Clinic Asthma Center in Ohio. The damaged portion may be removed to stop the disease from spreading, she said in a telephone interview.

“This must have been a very difficult infection and he wasn’t responding to treatment,” she said. “He was young and I expect rather healthy. It seems like by removing this infection, anything that could have become a chronic problem may very well have been cured and poses no risk to him now.”

The fact that only part of a lung was taken out, rather than the entire organ as earlier reports suggested, is even more reassuring, Khatri said. People who have lost half their lung function, particularly as they age, should monitor their exertion, be wary about infection and perhaps reduce their exposure to people who are sick, she said. Losing just a portion of one lung shouldn’t carry any restrictions.

“A whole lot of people get a portion of their lung removed and do just fine,” she said. “His experience for the past 50 years more than tell us that he has lung enough for the job.”

Washing Feet

The pope hasn’t limited his exposure to the sick. Before Easter in 1999, about a year after being named archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients in a local hospital. The next year he washed the feet of 12 prison inmates. He has done the same thing every year since, with members of different social groupings.

Pope Francis was born on Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, one of five children of an Italian immigrant father who worked on the railways. Bergoglio trained as a chemist before being ordained a priest in 1969. He had part of one lung removed after developing an illness at about age 21 and has remained in good health since then, a Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said today at a press briefing.