SURGERY BELOW THE SEA
It was a routine day at sea for INS Chakra, India’s first nuclear submarine, which was on her maiden passage to her homeport of Visakhapatnam. The morning ‘sick parade’ was announced, and Surgeon Commander Prakash Bellubbi decided to go and see whether there was anyone reporting sick at all, as it was almost a week since anyone had last ‘reported sick’.
It was then that the one emergency that doctors and Commanding Officers of submarines dread, happened. Leading Engineering Mechanic M Biswal complained of a severe pain in the abdomen, with fever and nausea. The diagnosis was swift - acute appendicitis. The treatment was clearly 'surgery'. But the submarine was hundreds of miles from shore, and far from home waters. Each hour that passed made the situation more critical, and finally the stage came when the patient’s very survival demanded surgical intervention. After worried consultations, the Captain and the doctor took the difficult decision that was needed to save Biswal’s life.
The submarine’s wardroom was rapidly prepared for the operation, and a small surgical team was formed and briefed by the doctor who was himself a marine medical specialist, and not a surgeon. There was only one paramedic on board, who was the Chief Medical Assistant of the ship. The other members of the team - all volunteers - were Commander Arun Kumar, the Operations Officer, Master Chief Petty Officer Gajraj Nears, the Submarine’s Coxswain, and S Singh, Petty Officer (Telegraphist).
The operation was performed on the Wardroom table, under local anaesthesia. It involved five hours of agony for the patient, anxiety for the Captain, and a herculean effort by the surgical team. It was a triumph of professional competence, courage, esprit-de-corps, and determination by the team, and in particular, on the part of the ship’s medical officer.