Whenever we felt that something was wrong with our body and we were sick, the first person that we thought of (maybe after our moms) was our doctors. They were the ones who could figure things out for us, whether we were really ill, about to die, or plainly just being paranoid about ourselves. It’s fairly easy to set an appointment and drive ourselves to their clinic or hospital. But what would you do if you were miles and miles away in the middle of the frozen Antarctic and there was only one doctor available in the whole area: yourself. To Dr. Leonid Rogozov, it was a do-or-die situation when he found out he was suffering from appendicitis.

Soviet Antarctic Expeditions

On November 30, 1955, the Soviets had their very first Antarctic Expedition led by Mikhail Somov, along with 125 expedition members and 75 crew members. They brought with them three diesel-electric ships that they used as transportation: RV Ob, RV Lean, and refrigerator ship No. 7, which was specifically for transporting perishables.

The principal task and purpose of the expedition were to organize their main base, the Mirny Station, and conduct limited scientific observations. They were also tasked to perform reconnaissance of sites for the inland bases Vostok and Sovetskaya and oceanography of the Indian ocean. This expedition that lasted until 1957 was the first among the 36 Soviet expeditions that they conducted, the last one being from 1991 to 1992. Among those, the sixth was definitely one of the most unforgettable expeditions that happened.

The Team’s Physician

Leonid Rogozov was from Borzinsky District Dauriya Station, Chita Oblast, a remote village east of Siberia and was just about 10 miles from the Soviet border. He completed medical studies at Saint Petersburg State Pediatric Medical Academy Leningrad Pediatric Medical Institute as a general practitioner. Then, he started his clinical training to be a surgeon. At the age of 26 in 1960, his training was interrupted because he joined the sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition as the team’s medical doctor.

Leonid Rogozov (R) relaxing with one of Antarctica’s best-known inhabitants. (Vladislav Rogozov/BBC)

From September 1960 to October 1962, Rogozov worked in the harsh climate of Antarctica. He served as the doctor for a team of thirteen researchers at the Novolazarevskaya Station that was established in January 1961. Everything was going well until the morning of April 29, 1961. He started experiencing general weakness, nausea, and moderate fever. Later on, he felt the jabbing pain in the lower right part of his abdomen. As a medical practitioner, he quickly was able to identify the classic symptoms. His self-diagnosis: acute appendicitis. Rogozov knew that he would need surgery, but the frontier conditions of their newly-founded colony were far from ideal. It was, in fact, on the brink of the polar night. There was also no way of transporting him back to Russia with the snowstorms that they were experiencing. Above all, he was the only physician on the team and perhaps in the whole Antarctic.

He tried to alleviate the symptoms with available treatments of antibiotics and local cooling, but his overall condition was getting worse; his body temperature rose, and he vomited more often. In his diary, he wrote,

“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”.

Do or Die

It was a do-or-die situation for Rogozov, and he had no one to rely on but himself. He decided to do it. He would perform the operation on himself. He started the month of May by cutting his abdomen up with the assistance of a driver and meteorologist. They were the ones handing the instruments to him and holding the mirror so he could see his innards. The problem, however, was that the inverted view of the mirror made it harder for him to work, so he decided to ditch and work by touch. His diary entry would tell what happened next.