It all happened during the 6th Soviet Antarctic Expedition at Novolazarevskaya Station. The 27-year-old, Leonid Rogozov started to feel tired, weak and nauseous. Later, a strong pain developed down the ride side of his abdomen. The patient was the only surgeon station, so the assistant was a mechanic.
Being a surgeon, he had no difficulty in diagnosing acute appendicitis. 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 civilized world – instead he was in the middle of a polar wasteland,” according to his son, Vladislav.
On April 30, 1961, Rogozov’s life was in danger to seek for help because flying was impossible of the snow and glizzards.
He was confronted with a very difficult situation of life and death. He could wait for no help, or make an attempt to operate himself,” said Vladislay.
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.
He had to open his own abdomen to take his intestines out. He didn’t know if that was humanly possible,” explained his son.
The operation took 2 hours. He positioned himself so that he could see his own body using a mirror when doing the surgery – he made a 12 cm cut through which he found the appendix.
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,” as Rogozov wrote to his diary.
Rogozov worked out a detailed plan for how the operation would unfold and assigned his colleagues specific roles and tasks. He nominated two main assistants to hand him instruments, position the lamp, and hold a mirror – he planned to use the reflection to see what he was doing.
He was so systematic he even instructed them what to do if he was losing consciousness – how to inject him with adrenalin and perform artificial ventilation. I don’t think his preparation could have been better,” said Vladislav.
A general anesthesia 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. 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.
As he reached the final and hardest part of the operation, he almost lost his consciousness because of the heavy bleeding. He grew weaker and weaker throughout. Hence, he resort to rest in every 20-25 minutes.
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.”
But he didn’t fail. After nearly two hours he had completed the operation, down to the final stitch. Before allowing himself to rest, he instructed his assistants how to wash the surgical instruments and only when the room was clean and tidy did Rogozov take some antibiotics and sleeping tablets.
It was a staggering achievement. 5 days post-operation, the doctor felt good, and after 7 days he removed the wires which had been used to sew up the body. 2 weeks later, Rogozov returned to his normal duties.