Dr. Leonid Rogozov Performed Self-Surgery to Remove His Appendix in Antarctica, 1961
In 1961, Dr. Leonid Rogozov, a Soviet general practitioner, took part in a Soviet Antarctic Expidition. On the morning of April 29, 1961, Rogozov began experiencing weakness, nausea, and moderate fever. When he later developed pain in the lower right portion of the abdomen, he knew he had acute appendicitis and something had to be done if he was to survive.
Since he was the only doctor stationed at the Novolazarevskaya Station at the time, he had to perform an appendectomy on himself, a famous case of self-surgery.
Rogozov wrote in his diary:
“It seems that I have appendicitis. I am keeping quiet about it, even smiling. Why frighten my friends? Who could be of help? A polar explorer’s only encounter with medicine is likely to have been in a dentist’s chair”.
Available conservative treatment (antibiotics, local cooling) was performed, but Rogozov's condition only got worse. His body temperature rose, and he began vomiting more frequently.
“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”.
Rogozov had no option but to perform the surgery on himself. With the help of a driver and meteorologist, who provided instruments and held a mirror for Rogozov to observe areas not directly visible, he started the surgery while in a semi-reclining position, half-turned to his left side.
After 30--40 minutes, he started taking short breaks because of general weakness and vertigo. Finally, he successfully removed the severely affected appendix. He applied antibiotics in the peritoneal cavity and sutured the wound closed. The operation itself lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Partway through, his assisting team took photos of the operation.
“I worked without gloves. It was hard to see. The mirror helps, but it also hinders—after all, it’s showing things backwards. I work mainly by touch. 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 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, basically, I was already saved”.
After the operation, Rogozov's body temperature returned to normal in five days, and the stitches were removed seven days after the operation. He returned to his regular duties in about two weeks. The self-surgery captured the imagination of the Soviet public at the time. Rogozov’s self-surgery remains an example of determination and the human will for life.
In 1961, Rogozov was awarded Order of the Red Banner of Labour, but in later years, he rejected all glorification of his deed. When questioned about the famous self-surgery, he just answered with a smile and the words "A job like any other, a life like any other."
In October 1962, Rogozov returned to Leningrad and started working on an MD at his alma mater. He later worked as a doctor in a number of 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 at age 66, in Saint Petersburg, Russia from lung cancer.