In January of 1961, the Russian research base called Novolazarevskaya Station opened deep in the isolated regions of the frozen Antarctic ice cap. By the end of April, one of the thirteen station crewmen displayed unmistakable signs of appendicitis, so the base doctor, Leonid Rogozov, decided that he would have to conduct an emergency appendectomy on the patient, despite the poor conditions under which the surgery would be held. The main problem with this plan was besides being the only qualified medic on the base, the doctor was also the patient.
27-year-old Rogozov felt weak and nauseous on April 29, 1961, suffering from severe pain in his abdomen. When his temperature rose and his vomiting failed to lessen by the next day, he made his own diagnosis that he needed emergency surgery. Novolazarevskaya Station lies in the area of Antarctica directly south from the tip of Africa in Queen Maud's Land; the next closest Russian base was Mirny, which is Australian Antarctic Territory, more than 3,700 miles away. Nearby non-Russian bases lacked airplanes, and an incoming blizzard prevented land travel. Rogozov, limited in options, decided to perform self-surgery.
Rogozov and station director Vladislav Gerbovich assembled a team to assist in the self-surgery. The station's meteorologist served as a nurse of sorts, handling instruments to Rogozov and holding the wound open with retractors, kneeling during the entire procedure. As Rogozov could not see his own abdomen directly, the station mechanic held a mirror and adjusted the lighting. Gerbovich stayed on hand in case one of the other two fainted during surgery. Rogozov instructed his cohorts with basic lessons on artificial respiration and prepared them for what he was going to do as best he could. They sterilized as many materials as possible, and Rogozov took a local anesthetic called procaine. Fifteen minutes later, he began.
Rogozov decided to forego wearing gloves, because he worked mainly be touch. He made a 10 to 12 centimeter incision in his midsection, and felt around for his appendix. The operation took almost two hours, far longer than normal, because Rogozov kept feeling weak and had to rest periodically to keep from passing out himself. The mechanic kept wiping Rogozov's forehead, and the doctor was sweating profusely. He bled heavily, and his intestines audibly gurgled.
Finally, he reached the appendix, which according to his later estimation was less than a day from bursting. He successfully removed it and gave himself some antibiotics. After telling his assistants how to clean the instruments, he sewed himself up. and then took some sleeping pills and a nap.
Rogozov rested for several days, but eventually recovered, remaining at Novolazarevskaya for more than a year. Finally, he left the Antarctic for good and returned to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He finished the dissertation that he had delayed in order to take the post at Novolazarevskaya years before, and was awarded the Red Banner of Labour for his ordeals. Dr. Rogozov later headed the surgery department at the Leningrad/St. Petersburg Research Institute for Tubercular Pulmonology for fourteen years before his death in 2000.
Links and Sources:
"Self-Operation", by L.I. Rogozov, Physician, Sixth Antarctic Expedition, available online here.
Trailblazing Medicine: Sustaining Explorers During Interplanetary Missions, by Erik Seedhouse, Springer Books, 2011.
Photo of Novolazarevskaya Station by René Robert.
"Do It Yourself" © 2015 by James Husband.