Leonid Rogozov, a russian surgeon, was part of the sixth Soviet Antarctic expedition – a team of 12 had been sent to build a new base at the Schirmacher Oasis.
The Novolazarevskaya Station was up and running by the middle of February 1961, and with their mission complete the group settled down to see out the hostile winter months. He was the only doctor present at Novolazarevskaja Station and, while he was there, he was forced to perform an appendectomy on himself, in one of the popular case of self-surgery.
During the expedition, Leonid Rogozov became seriously ill. He needed an operation and, as the only doctor on the team, he realised he would have to do it himself.
On the morning of April 29, 1961 Rogozov warned of symptoms of general weakness, nausea and moderate fever, and later a strong pain developed down the right side of his abdomen. The symptoms were the classic ones of acute appendicitis.
“Being a surgeon, he had no difficulty in diagnosing acute appendicitis,” says his son, Vladislav. “It was a condition he’d operated on many times, and in the civilised world it’s a routine operation. But unfortunately he didn’t find himself in the civilised world – instead he was in the middle of a polar wasteland.”
However, by the end of April, Rogozov’s life was in danger and he had no hope of outside help. The journey from Russia to the Antarctic had taken 36 days by sea, and the ship wouldn’t be back for another year. Of course, flying was impossible because of the snow and blizzards.
He was confronted with a very difficult situation of life and death, so he made an attempt to operate on himself.
It was not an easy choice. Rogozov knew his appendix could burst and if that happened, it would almost certainly kill him, and while he considered his options, his symptoms got worse. Moreover, this was the Cold War, with East and West competing in nuclear, space and polar races – the weight of which rested on both nations and individuals and Rogozov made his decision: he would perform an auto-appendectomy rather than die not doing anything.
Even if the doctor tried all the care he had available (antibiotics, local cooling), his general condition worsened: his body temperature increased, and vomiting became more frequent.
“I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil! A snow storm whipping through my soul, wailing like 100 jackals,” he wrote in his diary.
“Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent, but an oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me… This is it… I have to think through the only possible way out – to operate on myself… It’s almost impossible…but I can’t just fold my arms and give up.”
The surgery began at 02:00 am local time, the first day of May, with the help of a driver and a meteorologist, who passed the instruments and held a mirror to allow the vision of the area to be operated. The station director was also in the room, in case one of the others became faint.
A general anaesthetic was out of the question. He was able to administer a local anaesthetic to his abdominal wall but once he had cut through, removing the appendix would have to be done without further pain relief, in order to keep his head as clear as possible.
“My poor assistants! At the last minute I looked over at them. They stood there in their surgical whites, whiter than white themselves,” Rogozov wrote later. “I was scared too. But when I picked up the needle with the novocaine and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode, and from that point on I didn’t notice anything else.”
Rogozov had intended to use a mirror to help him operate but he found its inverted view too much of a hindrance so he ended up working by touch, without gloves. Rogozov had assumed a semi-lying position, slightly tilted on his left side. After 30-40 minutes from the beginning of the operation, Rogozov began to take short breaks, due to general weakness and dizziness.
However, he was able to remove the severely inflamed appendix, then applied antibiotics to the peritoneal cavity and closed the wound. The operation lasted an hour and 45 minutes, during which his helpers took some pictures.
“The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time… Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up,” Rogozov wrote. “I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every four to five minutes I rest for 20 – 25 seconds.
Finally here it is, the cursed appendage! With horror I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would have burst… My heart seized up and noticeably slowed, my hands felt like rubber. Well, I thought, it’s going to end badly and all that was left was removing the appendix. And then I realized that, after all, I had already saved myself.”
After the surgery, Rogozov’s general conditions gradually improved: body temperature returned to normal after five days, and stitches were removed seven days after surgery; within two weeks the doctor resumed his normal life.
Rogozov returned home a national hero. His incredible survival story was a powerful tool for the Soviet propaganda machine. His self-intervention remains an example of determination and will, even if in the following years the doctor rejected all the glorification of his action. When someone talked about it, he usually replied with a smile and these words:
“A job like any other, a life like any other”
Rogozov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour which honoured great deeds and services to the Soviet state and society.
Later he worked as a doctor in various hospitals in the city, and from 1986 to 2000 he was director of the Department of Surgery of the Research Institute for Tuberculosis and Pneumology of St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad). Rogozov died in 2000, at the age of 66, in St. Petersburg, Russia, of lung cancer.
Source and Images: BBC.