This short piece from the Atlantic was first published in 2011, but it’s been going the rounds, and I found it so amazing that I had to post it.
The story: in 1961, Soviet doctor Leonid Rogozov was spending the winter at a Russian base in Antarctica when he fell ill, diagnosing himself with appendicitis. He was the only doctor on the base, and evacuation was impossible as it was winter, too dark and cold for planes to land.
There were only two alternatives: operate on himself, or die. He chose the former. The Atlantic has some excerpts from his journal, both before (first paragraph) and after (last two paragraphs) the surgery:
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.
. . . 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 realised that, basically, I was already saved.
Here’s a photo:
The Atlantic reports that Rogozov survived, and died in St. Petersburg in 2000 at age 66.
I asked a friend who is a doctor if Rogozov could have used any kind of anesthetic (even if they had one), and he replied:
No. He would have had to do that without anesthesia. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. The psychological and physical impact of cutting oneself would be hard enough to manage, but to perform an operation in the right order, while losing blood! I can’t imagine it. Goes to show you what you can do when you feel you have to.
I then asked for clarification because my question was ambiguous: could he have used a local anesthetic? The reply:
Local anesthesia, like lidocaine, could have been used, but I don’t know if it had been introduced by 1961. But even if he did have a local anesthetic like lidocaine available, he would have only been able to use it on the skin and superficial subcutaneous tissues. Once the scalpel went deeper, he would have really felt it.
This reminds me a bit of Jerri Nielson, the American doctor who, in late May of 1999, found a lump in her breast while spending the winter at a base in Antarctica. She performed a biopsy on herself (results inconclusive), but then medical equipment was parachuted in since winter evacuation was impossible. A better biopsy was done and the scans sent to the U.S., where breast cancer was confirmed. After giving herself hormone treatment and chemotherapy (materials also airdropped in), she was finally evacuated to the States in October. I didn’t know the outcome, but was sad to learn, when looking this up, that the cancer eventually returned, killing her in 2009 at age 57.