A Matter of Life and Death
There are numerous remarkable true survival stories — yet few can match that of , the Russian doctor who performed surgery on himself to save his own life.
From September 1960 to October 1962, Leonid Rogozov was a member of the 6th Soviet Antarctic expedition as the only doctor amongst a team of 12 researchers. He was sent to the Novolazarevskaya Station to take part in the construction of the research station and to stay on as the resident doctor.
During the Antarctic winter of 1961, Rogozov and his team were completely cut off from the outside world, with the nearest friendly research station being over 1,000 miles away. On the morning of 29 April 1961, Rogozov experienced general weakness, nausea, and moderate fever, and later pain in the lower right portion of the abdomen. His symptoms were classic: he had acute appendicitis. Transportation was impossible. Flying was out of the question, because of the adverse weather. And there was one further problem: he was the only physician on the base.
Further compounding his quandary, Novolazarevskaya Station had only recently been completed and was lacking proper medical equipment. This would make any attempted surgeries a perilous endeavour.
All available conservative treatments applied had failed. As the clocks ticked on, his condition deteriorated. His body temperature rose, and he was vomiting more frequently.
By the 30th April, Rogozov was in severe pain. His fellow researchers had done everything they could to make him more comfortable. Unfortunately, his appendix was ready to burst. A complication in the form of peritonitis could kill him, which is why he had to act swiftly. He would have to operate on himself.
This was by no means, the first case of self-operation. On February 15, 1921, an American surgeon, Evan O'Neill Kane, carried out his own appendectomy. This was in an attempt to prove the efficacy of local anaesthesia for such operations. He is believed to have been the first surgeon to have done so.
The catch is Evan O'Neill Kane was supported by a team of medically trained staff ready to step in if the operation was to go awry. Rogozov's research team were lacking any medical training and the research station lacked the proper equipment to perform an operation.
Caught between certain death and self-operating, Rogozov chose the latter. He assembled a makeshift team composed of a driver, a meteorologist and a third scientist from the research team to serve as a stand in. He then taught them how to properly sterilise instruments before directing them to sterilise the operating theatre.
At 02:00 local time and with no time to waste, he injected a local anaesthetic and made the first incision.
It didn’t go as planned. Shortly after his first incision, he started to move his intestine to get to his appendix and found the mirror’s inverted image disorienting. He made a mistake and accidentally sliced his cecum, which he then had to suture.
After that, he abandoned the mirror and gloves, working primarily by feel. Finally, he removed the severely affected appendix. He applied antibiotics in the peritoneal cavity and closed the wound. The operation itself lasted an hour and 45 minutes
Leonid Rogozov returned to his normal duties as a member of the team two weeks later.
After the operation gradual improvement occurred in the signs of peritonitis and in the general condition of Rogozov. His body temperature returned to normal after five days, and after seven, he removed the stitches. He resumed his regular duties in two weeks after the event and returned to heavy work a month later. The self-surgery captured the imagination of the Soviet public at the time and in 1961 he was awarded Order of the Red Banner of Labour.
To this day, Rogozov’s self-operation remains a shining example of determination and the human will for life. In later years Rogozov himself rejected all glorification of his deed. He would later call the operation “a job like any other.”
In October 1962 Rogozov returned to Russia and started working on an MD at his alma mater. In September 1966 he defended an MD thesis titled “Resection of the oesophagus for treating oesophageal cancer”. He later embarked on a successful career as a doctor in various hospitals in Saint Petersburg. From 1986 to 2000 he served as the head of the surgery department of Saint Petersburg Research Institute for Tubercular Pulmonology. Rogozov died in 2000, aged 66, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, from lung cancer.