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Pope Francis says he understands COVID sufferers' anguish thanks to his own brush with death

Rome — Pope Francis says he can relate to coronavirus patients who fear for their lives because of his own brush with death as a young man. The pope lost half of a lung to a pulmonary infection when he was just 21.

Vatican Pope Mask
Pope Francis shares a word with Monsignor Luis Maria Rodrigo Ewart as he arrives in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican for his weekly general audience, October 28, 2020.  Alessandra Tarantino/AP

The pontiff's comments, some of his most personal yet about his illness 63 years ago, were revealed in excerpts from a new book, "Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future," slated for publication in December by Simon & Schuster, a ViacomCBS company.

"I know from experience the feeling of those who are sick with coronavirus, struggling to breathe as they are attached to a ventilator," he said.

Francis was a second-year seminarian in his native Buenos Aires when he was hospitalized for an illness that had been misdiagnosed as influenza.

"I was hanging between life and death," he said, explaining how doctors removed more than a liter of fluid from his right lung, before having to surgically remove its upper lobe. 

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The ordeal "changed my bearings," he said. "For months I didn't know who I was, if I would live or die, even the doctors didn't know. I remember hugging my mother one day and asking her if I was about to die."

Francis credits a nurse for helping save his life — by doubling his doses of penicillin and streptomycin, without his doctor knowing.

"Thanks to her regular contact with sick people," Francis said, "she knew what patients needed better than the doctor and had the courage to put that experience to work." 

The illness has left the 83-year-old pontiff with weakened lung capacity. He can be heard out of breath after climbing stairs or walking long distances. That, plus his advanced age, puts Francis at high risk of a severe case if he catches the new coronavirus. 

However, he has been criticized for not taking precautions against COVID-19 seriously enough, often neglecting to wear a mask in public, both indoors and out, sometimes shaking hands with mask-less bishops, and leaning in to speak with them privately.  

Asked about the pope's behavior last month, the Reverend Augusto Zampini, one of the key members of the pope's COVID-19 commission, said: "we're working on that."

"He has started to use the mask now, and I hope he will use it in the general audiences, when he is close to the people," added Zampini.

As Italy grapples with its long-feared second wave of COVID-19 infections, Francis has had the Vatican offer free tests for Rome's poor and homeless, providing swabs at a clinic off St. Peter's Square that the Pope set up several years ago.

About 50 tests were being carried out at the clinic every day, according to archbishop Rino Fisichella, with testing scheduled to go on indefinitely. 

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