The story of the Italian nurse who “saved the life” of Pope Francis and who will now be his personal health assistant

In an indication that the 85-year-old accepts that he will need more care as he ages, Pope Francis has appointed a nurse from the Vatican’s health services to be his “personal medical assistant,” the same one the pontiff says “saved his life” in July 2021.

In a statement, the Vatican identified the assistant as Massimiliano Strappetti, coordinator of the nursing department of the Vatican’s Health and Hygiene Directorate and who accompanied the pope on his “penitent pilgrimage” to Canada last month.

Due to the new health problems that he registers, Francisco decided to officially create a new function, Vatican sources explained to AFP. The position of “personal medical assistant” did not previously exist in this papacy, although John Paul II, who died in 2005, had several medical caregivers in the last years of his life. Francisco already has a personal doctor, it is Dr. Roberto Bernabei, an internist and specialist in geriatrics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. He appointed him to the position in February 2021, after the death of the previous one due to coronavirus.

Massimiliano Strappetti, right, follows Pope Francis as he meets with young and old in the Nakasuk Primary School plaza in Iqaluit, Canada, on July 29, 2022. Photo: AP

In August 2021, the Pope indicated in an interview granted to the Spanish radio COPE that a nurse had “saved his life” during the colon operation to which he had undergone on July 4, 2021. “He saved my life , a man of much experience. This is the second time in my life that a nurse has saved my life. The first time was in the year 57″, said the pontiff referring to Strappetti, now 53 years old.

According to the newspaper La Repubblica, Strappetti examined the Pope in February 2021 when he suffered a first episode of diverticular stenosis of the colon and, after carrying out several tests, advised him to have surgery to prevent his situation from worsening. The pontiff acknowledged that the “intuition” of his then trusted nurse from the Vatican Medical Guard was decisive in inducing him to undergo surgery at the Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome.

The Pope’s surgical operation was on the final part of the colon and consisted of “a left hemicolectomy that lasted about three hours.” Colonic stricture is a condition in which part of the large intestine becomes narrower than usual. It can be dangerous if, due to its narrowness, it begins to prevent the safe passage of food, highlights the Catholic portal ACI Prensa.

The newspaper Corriere della Sera recalls that the chief surgeon was Professor Sergio Alfieri. The professional decided in the operating room “quickly a change of technique”, going from laparoscopy, with small holes, to the traditional operation with the cut of the stomach.

Massimiliano Strappetti, third from left, with Pope Francis during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, on August 3, 2022. Photo: AP

After the intervention, Strappetti was always by his side during the 10 days that he was hospitalized. He was also with Francis when the pontiff appeared on a balcony at the Gemelli Polyclinic on July 11, 2021.

Strappetti came to the Fondo Assistenza Sanitaria (FAS), the body that is responsible for providing medical services to Vatican workers and residents, after previously working precisely at the Gemelli, where he was employed in the resuscitation area, and at the Catholic University of Rome. As a nurse, Strappetti has already assisted John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the Vatican.

Corriere della Sera points out that Strappetti, a nurse whom he describes as “shy” and “discreet”, is an “affectionate father and husband, described by those who know him as generous and dedicated to others even outside his work”. In this sense, the Milanese newspaper also points out that Strappetti has a strong commitment to Catholic volunteering, “which leads him to take care of the last, so loved by Pope Francis, and who are called ‘barboni'”.

In the interview with COPE, Pope Francis affirms that the first time a nurse saved his life was in 1957. It is about an Italian nun who, opposing the doctors, changed the medication that they had to give Jorge Bergoglio, then a young seminarian, to cure him of the pneumonia he was suffering from.

Massimiliano Strappetti, on the right, during the internment of Pope Francis at the Gemelli Polyclinic. Photo: Vatican Media

In March 2018, Pope Francis remembered Sister Cornelia Caraglio, the religious nurse who saved his life when he was 20 years old, when he was torn between life and death. The pontiff paid tribute “to a nurse who has saved my life. She was a nurse nun: an Italian nun, a Dominican, who was sent to Greece as a teacher; she was very cultured.” “But she always worked as a nurse and then she came to Argentina. And when I was 20 years old and was about to die, it was she who told the doctors, even arguing with them: ‘no, this doesn’t work, you have to give her more,'” the Pope said.

Speaking to reporters on the plane back from a trip to Canada on Saturday, the pontiff said his advancing age and difficulty walking had ushered in a new, slower phase of his papacy. Francisco has suffered several health problems in the last year, especially in the ligaments of his right knee, which has reduced his mobility. After months of magnetic and laser treatments, the pope is able to walk short distances with a cane or walker, though he too uses a wheelchair.

To alleviate the pain, he regularly receives infiltrations and undergoes physiotherapy sessions, according to AFP. After his recent trip to Canada, the Pope ruled out the possibility of undergoing surgery as he fears anesthesia. “You don’t mess around with anesthesia and that’s why you think it’s not convenient,” he said. “I suffered six hours of anesthesia and I still see the traces,” he recalled.

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