Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin underwent new medical procedures under general anesthesia on Monday to address a bladder problem that landed him back in the hospital over the weekend, the Pentagon said, as officials forecast he would resume his job duties soon.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters that doctors had performed “non-surgical procedures” on Austin, 70, related to an “emergent bladder issue.” Ryder declined to provide more information about what was entailed or what symptoms the defense chief had experienced before returning to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday, his third admission there since having surgery to treat prostate cancer in late December.
In an update shared by the Pentagon, doctors John Maddox and Gregory Chesnut said they would monitor Austin closely overnight. They described his cancer prognosis as “excellent” but did not say what caused the bladder problem.
“We anticipate a successful recovery,” they said. Ryder, speaking at the Pentagon, said Austin was expected to remain in intensive care for the duration of his stay at Walter Reed, a medical complex outside Washington, but did not say how long that would last.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has been serving as acting defense secretary since Sunday afternoon. Ryder said Austin was expected to resume those duties on Tuesday.
Austin’s return to Walter Reed is the latest twist in a weeks-long saga over his health that has drawn intense scrutiny and raised questions about his handling of weighty national security duties and the limits of public officials’ right to privacy about medical matters.
The former Army general was criticized after news broke in early January that he had initially failed to notify the public, many of his top Pentagon aides and even the White House about his prostate cancer diagnosis, a subsequent prostatectomy and a later hospitalization for related complications that were severe enough to warrant a two-week stay at Walter Reed.
Austin later apologized for the secrecy surrounding his health challenges, acknowledging that he should have shared more information given the need to ensure a seamless chain of military command. He is expected to appear before the House Armed Services Committee to testify about the episode later this month.
Austin, who has been undergoing physical therapy as part of his recovery from his earlier hospitalization, also had been scheduled this week to make his first official trip since returning to the Pentagon. Given his hospitalization, officials said Monday that his trip to Brussels was canceled.
White House spokesman John Kirby, speaking at a separate news briefing, said President Biden had no concerns about Austin’s ability to do his job.
Ryder said the bladder issue was not related to Austin’s cancer but declined to say whether it was linked to the complications from his prostatectomy that caused his hospitalization beginning Jan. 1 or to something else.
Oliver Sartor, an oncologist who was not involved in Austin’s care, said the Pentagon’s disclosures are consistent with a bladder outlet obstruction, which essentially means you cannot urinate normally.
The urethra runs through the center of a prostate to connect to the bladder. After removing the prostate in a prostatectomy, a surgery that some men undergo because of prostate cancer, doctors must connect the urethra to the bladder, which can lead to complications, including urine leaks and obstructions.
Estimates range widely for how prevalent that complication is after a prostate-removal procedure, but Sartor described it as a “plausible” outcome. The obstruction can be fixed with a cystoscopy, a non-surgical procedure.
“It’s not a terribly big deal, but it’s really important, and you need to do it quickly,” said Sartor, who specializes in prostate cancer and practices at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “It’s unfortunate that a complication has developed, but based on the information provided, it seems like he should be able to make a full recovery.”
Sartor said a urine leak is also possible but less likely because that can require surgery to fix.