There’s something innately uncomfortable about imagining the inside of your own body. This discomfort is probably connected to a general evolutionary rule that says that seeing the inside of yourself probably means you’re seriously injured or dying, which is a pretty logical maxim, and a legitimate cause for panic. I think we’re also inherently intrigued by accounts of people who’ve mutilated themselves in an attempt to escape a desperate situation — self-surgery.
Of this specific sort of self-mutilation, there have been a number of notorious instances in recent history. Perhaps one of the most grisly and well-publicized was the case of Aron Ralston, who unintentionally fell into some extreme circumstances on a routine hike through Canyonland National Park in 2003. Here, while climbing down a rock wall, he unintentionally dislodged a large boulder. When it landed, it wedged between the narrow crevice Ralston was descending and both crushed and trapped his right arm against the rock wall. For five days Ralston tried to free his arm, all the while hallucinating, processing his slow, impending death, and eventually resorting to drinking his own urine to stay alive. By the fifth night, he was convinced he would be dead by morning. To his surprise he actually woke up the following morning. Overcome by desperation, he figured he could more or less break his forearm, then cut it off at the elbow with a knife he described as “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool.” It took him an hour. After freeing himself, he repelled down a 65-foot cliff one-handed, and was discovered by hikers as he struggled out of the park. He was soon airlifted to safety, and eventually a movie of his experience called 127 Hours was released to a receptive public.
Another harrowing, less-publicized account of self-surgery that comes to mind is that of a Mexican peasant named Ines Ramirez. After having experienced 12 hours of continuous labor pains in the dusty outer barrios of Oaxaca, Ramirez sensed that something wasn’t quite right — the baby didn’t seem to be coming out. Alone save for her helpless children and 50 miles away from the nearest medical facility, her solution was to shoot three glasses of hard liquor and use a kitchen knife to make a seven-inch vertical incision that went from her ribcage to her public bone. This was resourceful and brave of her, but unfortunately her aim was off. She couldn’t find the baby. After making two more significant incisions in her belly, she was able to reach in and pull out a baby boy. She cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, told one of her kids to go find help, and passed out. All this happened outside on a bench in public view. She was eventually taken to a clinic and made a full recovery.
A somewhat similar instance in which someone actually cut themselves open and pulled something out of their body was the case of a Russian named Leonid Rogozov, who in 1961 performed a successful self-appendectomy. The sole doctor for a research team of 13 scientists at a remote Russian Antarctic facility, one April morning Rogozov woke up feeling funny, and being a doctor, figured his appendix may have been on the outs. By the following night he was sure of it, and at 10 p.m. he felt he had no choice but to perform an appendectomy on himself. In a semi-reclined position, two members of the research team held mirrors to make visible out-of-sight areas, while Rogozov cut himself open. He had applied a local anesthetic. By midnight, the surgery was completed; Rogozov had cut out his own appendix. He made a full recovery after two weeks.
Maybe the moral of these three stories is something about the “audacity of the human spirit.” It isn’t a stretch to perceive each of these instances as triumphs of the human will, a cliche that includes the words “against all odds.” I don’t know if this behavior is specific to humans; maybe these extreme cases of survival were instinctual. The more cynical of us — this writer included — may be more inclined to finish reading each of these accounts, mull them over inconclusively, and finally decide that we hope to never, ever face a situation like these in our lives.