updated 3/5/2004 8:25:41 PM ET 2004-03-06T01:25:41

Attorney General John Ashcroft has been hospitalized with a severe case of gallstone pancreatitis, his chief spokesman said Friday.

Ashcroft, a former senator who had been free of health problems, canceled an appearance Thursday afternoon at which he was to have announced verdicts in a terrorism case.

The spokesman, Mark Corallo, said in a written statement that Ashcroft, 61, initially believed he had stomach flu.

“He went home and when the condition worsened, he was visited by White House Physician Daniel Parks, M.D. who advised that he go to the emergency room,” Corallo said.

Taken to emergency room
Corallo said Ashcroft was taken Thursday night to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital. He was admitted to intensive care and was being treated with antibiotics.

Justice Department officials said that Ashcroft was expected to be in the hospital for at least several days and that medical updates would be released as soon as they became available.

President Bush spoke briefly with Ashcroft by telephone Friday afternoon, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

“Our thoughts are with the attorney general,” McClellan said in Crawford, Texas. “We wish him a speedy recovery.”

Under Justice Department rules, Deputy Attorney General James Comey is authorized to exercise “all power and authority” of the attorney general. No transfer of power is necessary.

Fasting is cornerstone of treatment
Pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, is usually caused when a gallstone blocks the passage leading from the pancreas to the beginning of the small intestine. It also may be caused by excessive alcohol consumption, infection, injury or certain medications.

Symptoms include sudden, severe abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and fever. Eighty-five to 90 percent of patients recover within three to seven days after treatment begins.

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 80,000 cases of pancreatitis occur in the United States every year, about 20 percent of them severe. Medical experts said that while the condition usually was not life-threatening, it could be extremely painful.

The cornerstone of treatment is fasting, essentially allowing the pancreas to rest by reducing its secretions, along with supportive care to prevent complications. For gallstone-caused pancreatitis, the stone often passes, but sometimes it must be removed surgically or through an endoscopic procedure.

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