Health Science Travel

Man stranded in the Antarctic uses a mirror, lamp, and barely any anesthetic to remove his own appendix.

Leonid Rogozov
Written by Michael Davies

The remarkable story of the surgeon who removed his OWN appendix: Russian doctor stranded in the Antarctic used a mirror, lamp and barely any anesthetic

  • WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT 
  • Leonid Rogozov was part of a team building a polar base in the Antartic
  • Became ill with appendicitis but travelling to a hospital was impossible
  • Performed an operation to remove his own appendix with little anaesthetic
  • Taught assistants to administer drugs if he collapsed and used a lamp and mirror to carry out the procedure

In the depths of the Antarctic, the polar winter was descending.

A team of explorers knew they faced months of darkness, snowstorms and extreme frosts.

They had travelled 36 days by sea from Russia, having left November 5, 1960, and the ship would not return for another year.

Among their midst was the 27-year-old Leningrad surgeon Leonid Ivanovich Rogozov, who felt a sense of dread when he developed a sharp pain in his abdomen.

Russian surgeon Leonid Rogozov, (pictured left with his friend Yuri Vereschagin), was forced to remove his own appendix when he was stranded on an expedition in the Antartic - as he was the only doctor on the team

Russian surgeon Leonid Rogozov, (pictured left with his friend Yuri Vereschagin), was forced to remove his own appendix when he was stranded on an expedition in the Antartic – as he was the only doctor on the team

Mr Rogozov (pictured right) was part of a team of 12 building a polar base when he became ill with appendicitis. He knew if the organ burst he would die

He decided to perform an appendicectomy on himself, using a lamp, a mirror and just one injection of anaesthetic

He decided to perform an appendicectomy on himself, using a lamp, a mirror and just one injection of anaesthetic

Mr Rogozov and 11 others had built a polar base, inland at Schirmacher Oasis, and were now waiting for winter to pass so they could go home.

But on April 29, 1961, he wrote in his diary: ‘It seems that I have appendicitis’

‘But I am keeping quiet about it, even smiling. Why frighten my friends? Who could be of help?’

Soon, however, he became seriously ill; he was weak, nauseous, and felt searing pain in the upper part of his abdomen.

MR ROGOZOV’S DIARY

‘I didn’t permit myself to think about anything other than the task at hand.

‘It was necessary to steel myself, steel myself firmly and grit my teeth.

‘My poor assistants! At the last minute I looked over at them: they stood there in their surgical whites, whiter than white themselves.

‘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.

‘The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time – I try to work surely.

‘Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up.

‘Suddenly it flashed through my mind: there are more injuries here and I didn’t notice them…

‘I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin.

‘Every 4-5 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 and…

‘At the worst moment of removing the appendix I flagged: my heart seized up and noticeable 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 realised that, basically, I was already saved.’

He knew that to survive he had to undergo an operation, or his appendix could burst – an event that would surely kill him.

But flying was out of the question due to the snowstorms, and he would not survive the boat journey back to Russia.

He also faced another problem: he was the only physician on the newly-built station.

He would therefore have to do what many – even fellow surgeons would deem unthinkable – and operate on himself.

Details of the remarkable story can be found in a report written by his son Vladislav, published in the British Medical Journal.

His operation is thought to be the first successful case of someone performing an operation on themselves out of hospital, with no other medical professionals, and no possibility of outside help.

A day later, on April 30th, his symptoms became unbearable he knew he had to act.

His temperature was soaring, he was vomiting frequently and the pain was as bad as ever.

Mr Rogozov wrote in his diary: ‘I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil!

‘A snowstorm whipping through my soul, wailing like a hundred jackals.

‘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.’

 And he did not, instead devising a detailed plan for how the operation would be carried out.

He instructed his team members to assemble an improvised operating theatre, and moved everything out of his room, leaving only his bed, two tables and a lamp.

He assigned assistants to hand him instruments, position the lamp and hold a mirror he planned to use to see what he was doing.

Another team member was instructed to stay as a reserve, in case the other assistants became nauseous.

He taught his team how to inject him with the drugs he had prepared and how to provide artificial ventilation in case he lost consciousness.

Then, he gave his team a surgical wash, disinfected their hands, and put on their rubber gloves for them.

At 2am, he injected his abdominal wall with local anaesthetic, the only pain relief he was able to use throughout the procedure.

After 15 minutes, he made a 10- 12cm incision, and began.

As the BMJ account reports, he remained calm, but sweat was running down his face and he frequently asked his teammates, who were dizzy and close to fainting, to wipe it away.

Mr Rogozov returned to Russia a year later. When asked about performing an operation on himself, he said it was 'a job like any other'

Mr Rogozov returned to Russia a year later. When asked about performing an operation on himself, he said it was ‘a job like any other’

While he occasionally used the mirror, mainly he worked by feel, but after 40 minutes he began to feel weak and suffer vertigo, and needed to take short breaks.

At one point, his appendix ‘gurgled’, a sound his colleagues said was ‘highly unpleasant’ and ‘made them want to flee’.

When I picked up the needle and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode, and from that point on I didn’t notice anything else
Leonid Rogozov

But he carried on, and while he was very pale and obviously tired he eventually removed the swollen appendix and stitched himself back up.

A stickler for hygiene, he showed his assistants how to wash and put away the instruments, and only took sleeping tablets once everything was complete.

After four days of taking antibiotics he was well again, and on day five his temperature was normal.

After a week he removed his own stitches.

Incredibly, within two weeks, he was able to return to his normal duties on the base.

More than a year later, the team left the Antartica, and on 29th May 1962 they arrived at Leningrad harbour.

Mr Rogozov returned to work at his clinic the next day, and worked and taught in the Department of General Surgery of the First Leningrad Medical Institute for the rest of his life.

But rather than cover his mantlepiece in trophies, Mr Rogozov is said to have rejected any glorification of what happened in the Antartic.

When he was asked about it, it is said his usual reply was: ‘A job like any other, a life like any other.’

To read more visit this BMJ article on Mr Rogozov’s story.

About the author

Michael Davies

Reporting on all things fun and exciting! Michael Davies has won many awards including a Peabody and Pulitzer Prize, but says his proudest achievement in life is his 8-year-old girl named Heather.

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