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Pope Has Surgery to Help Him Breathe

Tracheostomy Will Open Airway to Help Pope Breathe Easier

WebMD Health News

Feb. 24, 2005 -- Pope John Paul II has undergone surgery – called a tracheostomy -- to help him breathe easier, the Vatican reports.

It's unclear exactly why the Pope needed this procedure. However, he was admitted to the hospital in early February with airway spasms arising from flu complications.flu complications. A recurrence of airway spasms could prompt the need for this procedure.

A tracheostomy is a surgically created opening in the neck that allows direct passage of air to the trachea (the breathing tube) rather than breathing though the mouth or nose. It is kept open with a hollow tube called a tracheostomy tube.

To help users understand more about this procedure, WebMD turned to the medical experts at MedicineNet.com, a WebMD company, for answers.

Why Is a Tracheostomy Performed?

A tracheostomy is usually done for one of three reasons: (1) to bypass an obstructed upper airway; (2) to clean and remove secretions from the airway; and (3) to more easily, and usually more safely, deliver oxygen to the lungs.

How Is a Tracheostomy Done?

In most situations, the surgery is performed in the intensive care unit or in the operating room. In either location, the patient is continuously monitored by pulse oximeter (a probe usually attached to the patient's finger to determine oxygen levels) and by electrocardiogram (EKG).

The surgeon makes an incision low in the neck. The trachea is identified in the middle, and an opening is created to allow for the new breathing passage (tracheostomy tube) to be inserted below the larynx (voice box).

After the Procedure

The surgeons will monitor the healing for several days after the tracheostomy. Usually, the initial tube that was placed at the time of surgery will be changed to a new tube sometime between four and 10 days following surgery, depending on the specific circumstances. Subsequent tube changes are usually managed by the treating physician or nursing staff.

If a patient requires assistance with breathing, he or she will be placed on mechanical ventilation -- a breathing machine -- and will be unable to talk.

If the tracheostomy tube will be necessary for a long period of time, the patient and caregivers will be instructed on home care. This will include suctioning of the trachea and changing and cleaning the tube.

What Are Risks of Tracheostomy?

A tracheostomy, as with all surgeries, may involve risks of unsuccessful results, complications, or injury from both known and unforeseen causes.

Complications from the procedure are rare but do occur:

  • Airway obstruction and aspiration of secretions (rare)
  • Bleeding. In very rare situations, the need for blood products or a blood transfusion
  • Damage to the larynx or airway with resultant permanent change in voice (this is rare)
  • Need for further and more aggressive surgery
  • Infection
  • Air trapped in the surrounding tissues or chest. In rare situations, a chest tube may be required.
  • Scarring of the airway or erosion of the tube into the surrounding structures (this is rare).
  • Need for a permanent tracheostomy. This is most likely the result of the disease process that made the tracheostomy necessary and not from the procedure itself.
  • Impaired swallowing and vocal function
  • Scarring of the neck

Many patients who undergo a tracheostomy are seriously ill and have multiple organ-system problems. The doctors will decide on the ideal timing for the tracheostomy based on the patient's status and underlying medical conditions.

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