The Surgeon who Operated on Himself

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Leonid Ivanovich Rogozov (pictured above and below right) knew he was in trouble when he began experiencing intense pain in lower right quadrant of his abdomen. He had been feeling unwell for several days, but suddenly, his temperature skyrocketed and he was overcome by waves of nausea. The 27-year-old surgeon knew it could only be one thing: appendicitis.

blog3The year was 1961, and under normal circumstances, appendicitis was not life-threatening. But Rogozov was stuck in the middle of the Antartica, surrounded by nothing but thousands of square miles of snow and ice, far from civilization. He was one of thirteen researchers who had just embarked on the sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition.

And he was the only doctor.

At first, Rogozov resigned himself to his fate. He 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.

He was right that there was no one who could help. Even if there had been another research station within a reasonable distance, the blizzard raging outside Rogozov’s own encampment would have prevented anyone from reaching him. An evacuation by air was out of the question in those treacherous conditions. As the situation grew worse, the young Soviet surgeon did the only thing he could think of: he prepared to operate on himself.

Rogozov was not the first to attempt a self-appendectomy. In 1921, the American surgeon Evan O’Neill Kane undertook an impromptu experiment after he too was diagnosed with a severe case of appendicitis. He wanted to know whether invasive surgery performed under local anesthetic could be painless. Kane had several patients who had medical conditions which prevented them from undergoing general anesthetic. If he could remove his own appendix using just a local anesthetic, Kane reasoned that he could operate on others without having to administer ether, which he believed was dangerous and overused in surgery.

Lying in the operating theater at the Kane Summit Hospital, the 60-year-old surgeon announced his intentions to his staff. As he was Chief of Surgery, no one dared disagree with him. Kane proceeded by administering novocaine—a local anesthetic that had only recently replaced the far more dangerous drug, cocaine—as well as adrenalin into his abdominal wall. Propping himself up on pillows and using mirrors, he began cutting into his abdomen. At one point, Kane leaned too far forward and part of his intestines popped out. The seasoned surgeon calmly shoved his guts back into their rightful place before continuing with the operation. Within thirty minutes, he had located and removed the swollen appendix. Kane later said that he could have completed the operation more rapidly had it not been for the staff flitting around him nervously, unsure of what they were supposed to do.

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Emboldened by his success, Kane decided to repair his own inguinal hernia under local anesthetic eleven years later. The operation was carried out with the the press in attendance. This operation was more dangerous than the appendectomy because of the risk of puncturing the femoral artery. Unfortunately, this second surgery was tricky, and ended up taking well over an hour. Kane never fully regained his strength. He eventually came down with pneumonia, and died three months later.

Back in Antartica, Rogozov enlisted the help of his colleagues, who assisted with mirrors and retractors as the surgeon cut deep into his own abdomen. After forty-five minutes, Rogozov began experiencing weakness and vertigo, and had to take short breaks. Eventually he was able to remove the offending organ and sew up the incision (pictured below, recovering). Miraculously, Rogozov was able to return to work within two weeks.

blog4The incident captured the imagination of the Soviet public at the time. After he returned from the expedition, Rogozov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. The incident also brought about a change in policy. Thereafter, extensive health checks became mandatory for personnel before their departure for Antartica was sanctioned.

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