“MY heart seized up and noticeably slowed; my hands felt like rubber” this is how Leonid Rogozov described the sensation of removing his own appendix in a diary entry written after his extraordinary feat.
The Russian surgeon was forced to operate on himself during an Antarctic mission in which he was stuck at a camp made inaccessible by the region’s harsh winter.
Rogozov was part of a Soviet expedition sent to build a polar base at Schirmacher Oasis. The 12 members of the Novolazarevskaya team completed their mission after nine weeks, on 18 February 1961, just as the Antarctic winter descended. They knew they would have to wait out the darkness, snowstorms and extreme frost before they could sail away.
That was when team doctor Rogozov, 27, noticed he was feeling weak and sick, and realized he had appendicitis. “I am keeping quiet about it, even smiling,” he wrote in his diary. “Why frighten my friends? Who could be of help?”
Rogozov soon realized he had a choice between death or saving himself, through an operation that pushed the “boundary of the humanly possible”, as his son Vladislav described it, in a feature the consultant anesthetist wrote for the British Medical Journal.
Rogozov wrote: “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.”
By 30 April, Rogozov could no longer hide his illness, and antibiotics and cold presses could not stop his soaring temperature and vomiting. The only option was to go ahead with surgery.