As Pope Francis settles into his new role at the Vatican, Catholics around the world have been interested in getting to know their new leader. According to most reports, the Jesuit priest from Argentina has made a splash with both Catholics and the mainstream media for his humble style.
One of the fascinating facts sticking with folks as they learn more about the Pontiff’s background is that he is living with just one lung full lung. The bulk of the other was removed in the 1950’s, for reasons not entirely clear, although the press has speculated it was likely due to an infection.
To understand more about the historical medical reasons behind lung removal and the reality of living with only one full lung, we spoke with Marshall Hertz, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Center for Lung Science and Health at the University of Minnesota.
HealthTalk: What types of infections might lead to the removal of a lung?
Marshall Hertz: Historically, the most common infection leading to lung resection might be tuberculosis. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case for Pope Francis. More likely a severe pneumonia during childhood or maybe a congenital problem leading to infection would be to blame. Some types of benign tumors might also require surgery, but those are unusual.
HT: Are there still some diseases that could lead to lung resection?
MH: This could still happen occasionally. Antibiotic therapy has made the need for surgery less common. However, surgery is so much safer and readily available now, making that a better option than before for some cases.
HT: How common was this type of surgery in the 1950s?
MH: I don’t know it to be common in South America in the 1950s, when Pope Francis had the procedure. Even in the UK and U.S., it would have been pretty high risk at that time.
HT: Are there any physical restrictions or long term health concerns for someone living with just one lung?
MH: Not really, and this hasn’t changed in the 50 or so years since the procedure was performed. Even then, the largest risk was the surgery itself. It is true there is less respiratory “reserve” in case of infections like pneumonia, but as long as the remaining lung is in good shape this also shouldn’t pose a significant problem.
So there you have it. Despite the somewhat unconventional move to remove his lung in the 1950s, Pope Francis has shown that living with just one full lung doesn’t have to slow you down.