March 22 - When Pope Francis suffered a serious lung infection as a teenager the only feasible treatment at that time was to remove the lung. Much has changed since then. With modern technology, medicine today offers a range of much less invasive procedures unheard of when the Pope was boy. Sharon Reich reports.
To all appearances, he's a healthy 76-year-old, but the man now known as Pope Francis will be fulfilling his papal responsibilities with only one fully functional lung. As a teenager in Buenos Aires, the Vatican says Jorge Mario Bergoglio had part of a lung removed, reportedly because of an infection. Some believe this could affect his performance and longevity as Pope, but 77 year old Ruth Whalen , a devout Catholic, says she's relieved that he survived at all. She's about to undergo lung surgery herself. (SOUNDBITE) (English) RUTH WHALEN, CANCER PATIENT, NEW YORK-PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL PATIENT, SAYING: "I'm very happy because if he got through it I can get through it, you know. I'm not scared at all, I promise you. I'm not scared at all." Ruth has every reason to feel confident. Much has changed in sixty years. Dr. Mark Ginsberg, will be performing her surgery at NY Presbyterian Hospital. He says modern technology and superior drugs allow today's doctors to more accurately diagnose and treat lung conditions without surgery. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. MARK GINSBERG, THORACIC SURGEON, NY PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL/COLUMBIA, SAYING: "If you think about it. When the pope had surgery what did we have? We had chest X-rays. Now we have CAT scans (Computed Axial Tomography), PET scans (Positive Emission Tomography), MRI's (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). So we have much better abilities now to ascertain what's going on. Secondly, if this was an infection for instance, perhaps Tuberculosis, we have much better drugs now. And so many patients, even the Pope, who needed surgery sixty years to sucessfully treat some of these diseases may not need it now." And recovery times are now much shorter. No longer do surgeons need to bend or break ribs in order to reach diseased lung tissue. They can do it with endoscopic cameras and instruments that require a small incision for access. Despite his more radical procedure, Dr Ginsburg says the Pope should be able to maintain an active life as he ages. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. MARK GINSBERG, THORACIC SURGEON, NY PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL/COLUMBIA, SAYING: "Fortunately the body is designed with a great deal of redundancy in reserve. Much like NASA designs the space shuttle and so you can lose a great deal of function of an organ and still function normally. Most patients with lung disease, until they've lost about 50 percent of their lung function, really don't notice any changes. And so the Pope may have lost half a lung, or part a lung, or a whole lung, his lung function may still be well above that level. He's stood the test to time. It's sixty years. He's clearly very active and very functional and lives essentially a normal life." Ginsberg is just as optimistic about Ruth Whalen, his own patient. After an operation that lasted over an hour, the cancerous portion of her lung was safely removed. He says she should be out walking the dogs and shopping with her grandchildren again, in no time.