WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft's schedule for the week was canceled Monday so he can continue treatment in a hospital intensive care unit for a severe case of gallstone pancreatitis.
Ashcroft, 61, is being treated with antibiotics and painkillers and is unable to do any work, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said. He is being visited mainly by his wife, Janet, other family members and close aides at George Washington University Hospital, where he was taken Thursday night after complaining of abdominal pain.
Doctors at the hospital were expected to decide this morning whether the attorney general would undergo surgery, officials said.
Ashcroft had been scheduled to appear Wednesday before a House Appropriations Committee panel to testify about the Justice Department's budget request. That hearing will now be postponed indefinitely, and it was unclear Monday when Ashcroft might return to duty.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, a gland that secretes digestive enzymes and insulin. In Ashcroft's case, the cause is a gallstone blocking a passage that leads from the pancreas to the beginning of the small intestine.
Treating the ailment first requires that those secretions be stopped, a process that can take several days to a week.
Medical experts say severe cases of pancreatitis can require hospitalization for a month.
In most cases, the gallstone passes on its own. There is also a possibility that the pancreas could suffer damage that would also need treatment.
In rare cases the disease can be fatal, usually in people with other medical problems. About 80,000 cases of acute pancreatitis occur each year in the United States, with 20 percent classified as severe.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey is empowered to act in Ashcroft's stead while the attorney general is being treated for the illness.