Self-surgery: 6 amazing tales

In this Spotlight, we will discuss six examples of self-surgery. The stories that follow are gruesome and unusual. Although they are not for the fainthearted, they are fascinating.

Surgical implements
Self-surgery is uncommon, thankfully.

Surgery is normally a skillful, delicate procedure that involves a surgeon and a patient.

However, over the years, for many reasons, one of the players in this classic duet has been absent.

In some cases, a surgeon’s dedication to understanding the human body goes far beyond the walls of the library, inspiring them to cut themselves open.

In other cases, extreme situations have made extreme actions the only viable option.

Self-surgery, or autosurgery, is certainly not a frequent occurrence — especially in modern times. However, it does happen, and below are six extreme examples.

1. Cardiac catheterization

Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann was studying medicine in Germany in the 1920s when a professor of his planted a question in his mind. That question was: Is it possible to reach the heart through the veins or arteries without the need for traumatic surgery?

Back then, the only way to access the heart was by conducting a fairly risky surgical procedure.

Forssmann came across an article describing how a veterinarian had reached a horse’s heart with a catheter via the internal jugular vein. This transports blood from the brain, face, and neck to the heart.

He came to the conclusion that in humans, he could use a ureteric catheter to reach the heart via the cubital vein, which lies close to the surface of the arm and travels to the heart.

Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann
Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann.

Excited, Forssmann told the chief of surgery that he planned to attempt the procedure on a patient.

The chief was rightly concerned for the patient’s safety and blocked his plans. So, Forssmann asked if he could carry out the procedure on himself. Once again, the chief responded in the negative.

Undeterred, the young surgeon spoke with the operating room nurse; as the keeper of the equipment, he would need to have her permission.

She was impressed with the idea and offered herself as a test subject. Despite her courage, Forssmann was still determined to carry out the procedure on himself.

He strapped the nurse down and pretended to make an incision on her, but he anesthetized his own cubital vein. He managed to advance the catheter 30 centimeters up his arm before the nurse realized that she had been duped.

Forssmann asked her to call in an X-ray nurse so that he could chart the catheter’s internal voyage from his arm to his heart.

While they were taking pictures of the catheter, a colleague saw what Forssmann had done and attempted to pull the catheter out of his arm. However, Forssmann won the ensuing tussle and continued his procedure.

The first images from the X-ray showed that the catheter had reached the level of his shoulder, so he continued feeding it through. Eventually, he achieved his goal: he could see the tip of his right ventricle cavity.

The procedure was a success, but Forssmann had gone against the grain and was dismissed from his residency. Unable to find any surgical position, he turned to urology.

Then, 17 years later, alongside two others, he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his part in the invention of cardiac catheterization.

Forssmann’s self-surgery was all in the name of medical advancement, but the next was a fight for survival.

Antarctica view
Although beautiful, Antarctica is not the ideal setting for auto-surgery.

As winter deepened and the sea froze, Rogozov had no hope of returning to civilization for treatment. His only option was to carry out an appendectomy on himself.

This was an operation that he had completed many times, but certainly not under these circumstances.

“Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent,” he wrote, “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.”

He recruited three of his colleagues to assist him: one held the mirror and adjusted the lamp, one handed him the surgical implements as he requested them, and one acted as a reserve in case either of the others should faint or become nauseous.

Rogozov also explained how to revive him with epinephrine in case he lost consciousness.

At 2 a.m. on May 1, 1961 — after medicating himself with local anesthetic — he made the first 10–12-centimeter long incision in his abdomen. After around 30 minutes, Rogozov became weak and needed to take regular breaks, but he persevered.

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