When Russian explorer Leonid Rogozov needed an appendectomy in the middle of Antarctica, he was the only doctor on site. So he did it himself.
Humans seem to have an innate ability to stay alive against incredible odds. History is filled with unbelievably true survival stories involving shipwrecks, cannibals, bear attacks and more (see below) — yet few survival stories match that of Leonid Rogozov, the Russian doctor who performed surgery on himself.
It was 1961, and the Cold War was in full swing. Leonid Rogozov was a member of the 12-man Soviet Antarctic expedition to build a base at the Schirmacher Oasis. Once completed, their mission was to hunker down and wait out the winter months until a ship or plane could reach them again in the spring.
But Rogozov’s appendix was ready to burst in the middle of the polar winter, leaving him with no outside medical help and only two options: operate on himself and live, or do nothing and die.
“Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent, but an oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me,” Rogozov wrote in a journal at the time. “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 recruited two other men to hand him instruments, and set up a mirror to see what he was doing. He couldn’t use a general anesthetic, however, since it would hinder his operating skills.
After he cut open his stomach and started to move his intestines to get to his appendix, he found the mirror’s inverted image disorienting. Instead, he took his gloves off and worked primarily by touch.
“The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time,” Rogozov wrote after the procedure. “Opening the peritoneum (the membrane lining the abdominal and pelvic cavities), I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up. I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every four to five 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. 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.”
From opening to sewing and suturing his wounds closed, the surgery took nearly two hours. Leonid Rogozov returned to his normal duties as a member of the team two weeks later.