Academician Fyodor Uglov: a century is not enough
A 100-year lifespan is still not long enough, a brilliant Russian surgeon and scientist, Academician Fyodor Uglov used to say. He earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest practicing surgeon. At 100, he wore no spectacles, his hands were as steady as ever, and he did several complicated operations per year. And only a stroke he suffered at the age of 102 made him put down his scalpel. Apart from being a virtuoso surgeon, he had a great and kind heart that he always held open to his patients.
PASHA: “The first question every person should ask himself is: what’s the essence of life? And this is how I formulated it, the way my parents had taught me: do good deeds. That’s why I took up medicine – to be able to restore people’s health and rescue their lives. In my opinion, it’s a great and noble cause,” Academician Uglov once said in an interview.
He was born in 1904 into a peasant family in a remote Siberian village perched on the bank of the Lena River. One of six children, he made up his mind once and for all to become a doctor, while still at school. When he announced his decision, his father said that he would be unable to support him further and that he would have to earn his own living. After leaving school, the young lad with 30 rubles in his pocket – that was all his father could give him - set out on a 1,000-km journey to the Siberian capital Irkutsk to enroll in the medical faculty of the East-Siberian University. He travelled for 22 days – by boat, in a horse cart, hitching a lift. Uglov was an assiduous student. To add a little more money to his meager scholarship of 6 rubles, he worked as a physician’s assistant and also as a log rafter. A few years later, he moved to the Saratov University, which he graduated from in 1929. He worked as a surgeon in the North for a number of years before taking up a post-graduate course under the famous professor Opel in St. Petersburg.
“You can’t imagine how I poked back then,” Uglov recalled. “I had never operated before. My surgeon mentor Maria Ivanovna said that my hands were like hooks. “With those hands of yours, you can’t even hope to be a shoemaker, let alone a surgeon”. “But it’s the first time I entered a surgery room,” I objected. “That doesn’t matter, young man. Before entering a surgery room, you must exercise your hands: tie and untie knots at home or sew something”, she replied.
‘Well,’ I thought angrily. ‘If that’s really so, I will quit’. But then I realized that they only wished me good. I asked a wound-be care nurse to give me surgical instruments, and worked with them at home diligently every day for several months, simulating various operations first with my right and then with my left hand. I mended stockings with a surgical needle. I put a stocking into a table drawer and grappled with it in the dark, honing my skills in case I have to operate in difficult conditions. And I also practiced fast knot tying. I did it every day for eight years. And my reward for this was mastership.
Uglov’s hand worked miracles. Many a time eminent foreign surgeons applauded him in the operating room. During his 75-year career, he performed more than 6,500 operations. That’s how many lives he saved. A pioneer of many trends in surgery, he was one of the first to transplant an artificial heart valve, performed unique operations on blood vessels, lungs and esophagus. The renowned U.S. cardiac surgeon DeBakey, to whom Russian President Boris Yeltsin entrusted his heart, once confessed: “I am a disciple of Uglov. He is your national wealth”.
Academician Uglov was an honorary resident of St. Petersburg. He loved that city where, a young surgeon and head of the surgery department at one of the hospitals, he stood at the operating table throughout the 900-day siege of the city by the Germans in 1941-1943, saving hundreds of lives of soldiers and civilians, and where he later worked at the Surgery Clinic of the Pavlov Medical University for more than half a century. The laureate of numerous domestic and foreign prizes, the recipient of multiple awards, the honorary member of various academies, he left behind lots of monographs and scientific articles, and he also taught and mentored young surgeons.
It was not some abstract zeal for research that drove him on, but his passionate desire to help people. “A surgeon must have the eyesight of an eagle, the strength of a lion and the heart of a woman,” he used to say.
Only a kind-hearted person can make a good surgeon. It’s a myth that a doctor should not “tear” his heart for the sake of each and every patient, said Fyodor Uglov.
I think that a surgeon must not spare his heart because it makes patients suffer more. If a patient talks to a doctor and does not feel a little better after that, this doctor had better take up some other profession.
Uglov always empathized with his patients. He lived a very tense, very emotional inner life, and his heart groaned with sadness before an operation, aware that it was the last straw for a patient. His nerves were string-tight while he operated. And even if all went well, a feeling of anxiety would not leave him for days afterwards. Once, during a hospital round, he advised one of his patients, an aged woman, to move more and to exercise her legs. “It’s easy for you to say. But I am 80 years old!” she retorted. Everyone burst out laughing and Fyodor Uglov, too, couldn’t help smiling, for he was 15 years older than her.
He never felt his age, he always felt young – ran up the stairs, drove a car, went skiing, and took cold showers pouring a bucket of could water on himself every morning. The best rest to him was a change of activity. He was well past his middle age when he learnt English to be able to read about new medical achievements without translation. He wrote books, and in nearly all of them he spoke about the harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco. Seeing that drinking and smoking were killing the nation, he could not remain aloof and fought them with the pen of an essayist instead of a scalper. In the 90s of the past century, Uglov, a tireless anti-alcohol campaigner, headed the National Sobriety Union.
At 100, Uglov was still operating. His handshake was as firm as that of an athlete and he preserved an amazing clarity of mind. Many wondered what kept him going for so long.
I am a hundred years old, but my hands aren’t shaking. Why? Because I haven’t drunk a drop of vodka or smoked a single cigarette in my life, the surgeon said in one of his interviews.
It’s poison: as many cigarettes you smoke and as much wine you drink, as much poison you take. I did not inherit longevity. What’s more I had enteric and spotted typhoid fever and sepsis, and spent six month in a hospital. Why have I lived to this age? First of all, I did not allow myself to overeat. My mother, a plain Russian woman, who had never received any education, always taught us to leave the table with our stomachs not completely full. We all eat too much. Overeating causes harm, even if a person does not put on weight, because all that is sucked in from the stomach is put through blood vessels, and all this settles down in our body and ages it. If we look at elders, we’ll see they all take very little food and never eat too much. Overeating considerably shortens our lifespan. Therefore, all my life, I left the dinner table a little bit hungry and, allowing myself no respite, went straight to my desk.
Uglov, a father of three, and a happy grandfather and great-grandfather, regarded family life as a key factor associated with longevity.
In former times, there used to be large families and children used to live with their parents for a long time. Abroad, parents separate themselves from their children early, but then when they become elderly, there have no one by their side to take care of them. That’s why there are so many homes for the elderly abroad. When old people gather together and talk about imminent death, it’s really heartbreaking. A large Russian family is a great treasure that needs to be preserved, the surgeon said.
Despite being a doctor, Academician Uglov disliked drug therapy. He warned that the infatuation with drugs was one of the greatest delusions of our age. The human body possesses enormous self-healing resources, and the only question is how to mobilize them to fight a disease, he said.
Here are some recommendations from his “guide to Russian long-livers”:
Love and protect your Motherland. He who has no Motherland doesn’t live long.
Control your temper. Don’t crumple, no matter what happens.
Love your family and be ready to take responsibility for it.
Never drink or smoke, otherwise all the previous recommendations are of no use.
Be careful while driving. The road is one of the riskiest places.
Don’t put on weight. Don’t overeat.
Protect your children from health-ruining music.
Don’t be afraid to visit a doctor.
No one is immortal, but how long youlive depends on yourself.
The rhythm of labor and rest is inherent in your body. Love your body, don’t overload it.
Do good deeds and avoid evil-doing.
My Mom used to say: “Fedya, do good to people, but don’t expect them to return you the good. Do it and forget it, and it will return to you by all means when you need it most”.
That’s what Fyodor Uglov particularly valued in people. He died in 2008 at the age of 103.