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Arcadia doctor recalls consultation with Pope John Paul II

Dr. Vincent Fortanasce attended a papal Mass in Rome in 2000 and was alarmed by the pontiff's frail appearance. The rest was personal history.

December 31, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Vincent M. Fortanasce stands next to a painting of Pope John Paul II in his Arcadia office. Fortanasce treated the pope in Vatican City in 2000.
Dr. Vincent M. Fortanasce stands next to a painting of Pope John Paul II in… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

He doesn't normally do house calls.

But when Dr. Vincent Fortanasce was summoned by the Vatican to tend to the pope, he was quick to agree.

Fortanasce is a neurological rehabilitation specialist and an author with a long history in Arcadia, where he practices.

It is the memory of half an hour in August 2000 that looms largest in the 68-year-old physician's life, however.

Fortanasce was in Rome that month, volunteering for three weeks of first aid duty with the Order of Malta, a laymen's group that offers international emergency medical service. The group was assisting during the Catholic Church's yearlong "Great Jubilee" celebration.

One day Fortanasce attended a Mass conducted by Pope John Paul II. He was stunned when he saw the frail pontiff slowly walk in.

"He was carrying a cane and he almost tripped over it," said Fortanasce. "I was standing next to one of the pope's secretaries, Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, and I asked him who was treating the pope."

Formenti told him that others were also concerned about the pontiff's condition and asked if Fortanasce would be willing to examine him.

Two days later eight Swiss Guards showed up at the aid station and escorted him to the 80-year-old pope. He was sitting by a window, reading his prayer book, when the physician walked in.

He recalled with emotion what followed:

"I remember the breviary was in Polish, not Latin, and it looked like it was 50 years old," Fortanasce said. "When he turned toward me, he turned his body, not his head .... I put out my hand — usually you kiss the ring — but he took my hand in his and shook my hand."

Fortanasce said he didn't ask the pope to disrobe. He was able to pull up the sleeves of his white linen clerical cassock to conduct a motor examination. He checked the pontiff's neck and discovered he had a severe cervical problem.

John Paul II was suffering from Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder that causes shaking and problems with coordination. When Fortanasce asked the pope to walk, he displayed a shuffling gait.

"The Parkinson's was moderately advanced. But he was as sharp as he could possibly be. Before long he was treating me — asking about my family and why I was there and what my interest was in the Order of Malta. He asked what motivated me to be there," the physician said.

Fortanasce and John Paul II hugged when the half-hour examination ended.

According to Fortanasce, the pope's physician later told him that John Paul II had not been seen by a neurologist recently and was taking L-dopa for the Parkinson's. But Fortanasce also learned that the pope was eating a high-protein diet that was limiting his body's absorption of the drug.

Fortanasce prescribed carbidopa, which he said helps with absorption. He also promised to send the pope an appropriate exercise regimen. When he returned to Arcadia, a friend, Yorba Linda physical therapist Ruben Salinas, recommended some core exercises to send to the Vatican.

Fortanasce was gratified shortly after to see television images in which the pope appeared invigorated. John Paul II lived until April 2005.

Father James-Michael von Stroebel, who is with the Order of Malta in Washington, D.C., and was also working at the Vatican when Fortanasce examined the pope, said the Arcadia physician never bragged about his unexpected papal consultation.

Fortanasce, the coauthor of six books including his latest, "End Back & Neck Pain," said he has not discussed details of his papal examination until now.

Although his normal consultation fee these days is $325, Fortanasce he was "paid" for the Vatican examination with holy water personally blessed by the pope. He still has it — in his kitchen refrigerator.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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