Why Pope Francis Only Has One Lung

Pope Francis is a pioneering pontiff in many ways — he’s the first to take the name of Francis, the first pope from South America, and the first to don the papal robes with an unusual medical condition.

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Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013.

Pope Francis is a pioneering pontiff in many ways — he’s the first to take the name of Francis, the first pope from South America, and the first to don the papal robes with one lung.

According to the Associated Press, the new Pope had one of his organs removed as a teenager, presumably after a bout with an infection. At that time, it’s possible that antibiotic treatments that are commonly used today to treat such infections were not as available, and to protect patients from further health problems doctors removed the lung as way to stop the infection from spreading.

“It was probably a pretty bad infection, and maybe even an abscess, that might have caused him to bleed,” says Dr. John Belperio, association professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California Los Angeles. “If he were bleeding a lot in the lung, the only thing to do is to resect the lung, take it out, to stop the bleeding.”

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Most bacterial infections wouldn’t cause such serious damage to the lung tissue, but, says Dr. Ronald Crystal, professor of medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, some strains, such as staphylococci, are more destructive and could eat away at the delicate organ, leaving doctors with no choice but to remove the affected tissue to prevent more widespread health problems.

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Anything from pneumonia to a fungus or even tuberculosis could have caused the initial infection, which, if it wasn’t controlled properly, would have resulted in removal of the lung.

Other possible reasons for the surgery include a birth defect that caused an abnormality in the lung tissue, or an unusual growth of blood vessels into the air sacs that would obstruct normal breathing.

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Fortunately, the lungs are a redundant system, and losing one lung doesn’t seriously compromise health. The only concern Pope Francis faced, and will continue to face, is that he has less respiratory reserve than someone with two intact lungs. That means he may be at slightly higher risk of complications from influenza or more vulnerable to succumbing to pneumonia. But, says Belperio, the fact that the 76-year old has lived a relatively healthy life so far demonstrates that his surgery did little to hamper his ability to live a full and active life.

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In fact, animal studies suggest that the lung has a remarkable ability to regenerate, and some preliminary work in young children shows that they may be able to regrow some amount of lost lung tissue as well.

As long as the Pope takes extra precautions to protect against infection — including getting vaccinated against pneumonia and having a flu shot every year — there’s no reason to believe the health of the Church’s 266th pontiff will be an issue. “He’ll do fine,” says Crystal.