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'Still alive,' Pope Francis jokes as he leaves a Rome hospital 9 days after surgery

Pope Francis leaves the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic in Rome, on Friday, nine days after undergoing abdominal surgery.
Andrew Medichini
/
AP
Pope Francis leaves the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic in Rome, on Friday, nine days after undergoing abdominal surgery.

ROME — Pope Francis was discharged Friday from the Rome hospital where he underwent abdominal surgery to repair a hernia and remove scarring from previous operations, with his surgeon saying the pontiff was "better than before" his nine-day hospitalization.

Francis, 86, left through Gemelli Polyclinic's main exit in a wheelchair, smiling and waving and saying "thanks" to a crowd of well-wishers. He stood up to get into the small Vatican car awaiting him. In the brief distance before reached the white Fiat 500, reporters thrust microphones toward his face.

The pope seemed to bat the mics away, good-naturedly. "Still alive,'' Francis quipped when asked how he was doing. As he smiled and shook hands, his face looked wan and thinner than usual.

When a reporter asked for a comment about the sinking of a crowded migrant boat off Greece that claimed dozens of lives and left hundreds missing, he replied: "So much sorrow."

Dr. Sergio Alfieri, the surgeon who performed the pontiff's three-hour operation on June 7, was outside the hospital along with the surging crowd as Francis exited.

"The pope is well. He's better than before,'' Alfieri told reporters after he said goodbye to Francis and the pontiff got into the car.

Following the surgery and his recuperation, Francis will be "stronger,'' the doctor said.

The Vatican press office announced that Francis would make his traditional Sunday noon appearance at an Apostolic window overlooking St. Peter's Square to greet the public, an engagement that lasts about 10 minutes.

But his customary Wednesday morning general audience with thousands of faithful in the square "has been canceled to safeguard the post-surgical recovery of the Holy Father,'' the announcement said. The general audience lasts about an hour and includes a speech by the pontiff.

Francis will instead meet Wednesday afternoon with Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva, the Vatican said.

Instead of going straight back to the Vatican, Francis stopped to pray for 10 minutes before an icon of the Virgin Mary at the famous St. Mary Major Basilica, which he often visits after trips abroad to give thanks. He also went there after his discharge from the same hospital following treatment for bronchitis earlier this year.

Tourists in the basilica excitedly snapped photos of the pontiff, who remained in a wheelchair as he prayed. Several people in the crowd outside wept as he left and headed for the Holy See hotel, where he lives on Vatican City grounds.

Before he arrived home, Francis made two more stops — first at a convent adjacent to the Vatican to greet nuns and then outside one of the walled city-state's gates to get out of his car so he could shake hands with and thank police officers who provided a motorcycle escort.

Hours after the surgery, Alfieri said that the scarring, which had resulted from previous abdominal surgeries, had caused the pope increasing pain. There was also risk of an intestinal blockage, if adhesions, or scar tissue, weren't removed, according to the doctors.

No complications occurred during the surgery or while the pope was convalescing in Gemelli's 10th-floor apartment reserved exclusively for hospitalization of pontiffs, according to the pope's medical staff.

Alfieri has said Francis, in choosing to have the surgery in June, calculated that he would bounce back in time for a planned August trip to Portugal. "He has confirmed all" his trips, the surgeon said.

"Actually, he'll be able to tackle them better than before, because now he won't have the discomfort he had,″ Alfieri said.

Along with the early August pilgrimage to Portugal for a Catholic youth jamboree, Francis has a trip to Mongolia scheduled to start on Aug. 31, a first-ever visit by a pontiff to that Asian country.

In just under two years, Francis had been hospitalized three times at Gemelli Polyclinic. In July 2021, he underwent surgery to remove a 33-centimeter (13-inch) section of his bowel because of narrowing of his large intestine.

That, as well as abdominal surgeries years back in his native Argentina before he became pontiff, had contributed to the painful scarring, according to Alfieri.

Francis was back in the hospital this spring to receive intravenous antibiotic treatment for bronchitis. As a young man in his native Argentina, Francis had a portion of one lung removed following infection.

Before this month's surgery, Francis seemed to be walking better, with the aid of a cane, following months of often using a wheelchair because of a painful knee problem. He also has suffered from sciatica, a painful inflammation of a nerve that runs down from back to leg.

On Friday, Alfieri expressed confidence that the pontiff would pace himself as he resumes his appointment-packed days at the Vatican.

"He'll listen a little more to us, because he has important commitments that he has confirmed, including the trips," the surgeon said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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