updated 3/9/2004 4:33:55 PM ET 2004-03-09T21:33:55

Surgeons successfully removed the gallbladder of Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday to prevent a recurrence of the gallstone pancreatitis that landed the Cabinet officer in a hospital intensive care unit.

“Everything went as planned. He did very well,” said Dr. Bruce Abell, who performed the procedure at George Washington University Hospital.

Abell said Ashcroft was in guarded condition after the procedure. He said Ashcroft would be advised to limit fatty foods.

Abell earlier cited stones “that are of concern to us” as leading to the decision to remove the gallbladder — a procedure called a cholecystectomy.

Abell said Ashcroft's gallbladder would be removed “because when the gallbladder isn’t removed, up to 50 percent of patients have a recurrence of pancreatitis within six weeks.”

Ashcroft has been hospitalized since Thursday with acute gallstone pancreatitis, and his condition has improved enough to withstand the surgery, Abell said.

Several days of recovery
The procedure was done laparoscopically. Most patients remain in the hospital for four or five days after such surgery, Abell said.

Video: A laparoscopic procedure involves insertion of a fiber-optic instrument through a small incision in the abdominal wall and is usually done with use of general anesthesia, according to the National Library of Medicine.

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that stores bile produced by the liver, shunting it as needed to the small intestine. Diet is not restricted after removal of the gallbladder, although some people suffer some recurring diarrhea.

Ashcroft, 61, has been in the hospital’s intensive care unit since he was admitted after complaining of severe abdominal pain.

Doctors diagnosed gallstone pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas caused by a gallstone that blocks a passage leading from the pancreas to the beginning of the small intestine. The pancreas is a gland that secrets digestive enzymes and insulin.

Severe cases can be life-threatening
Ashcroft was diagnosed with a severe case, which can be life-threatening, particularly among people with other medical problems. About 20 percent of the estimated 80,000 cases of acute pancreatitis in the United States each year are severe, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Pancreatitis also occurs more frequently in men than in women, according to NIH, and often strikes people more than once. In less severe cases, the gallstone passes on its own without the necessity of surgery.

The attorney general has canceled his schedule for the week to continue treatment for the illness. Deputy Attorney General James Comey is empowered to act for Ashcroft while the attorney general is being treated.

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