Miracle Operation: How a Georgian Doctor performed a one-of-a-kind surgery to save a little girl’s legs
06 November, 2014
Miracle Operation: How a Georgian Doctor performed a one-of-a-kind surgery to save a little girl’s legs
In summer of distant 1983, Soviet newspapers and magazines were all dedicated to talking about harvest. But after a simple accident, the story of a Georgian surgeon reattaching limbs of a three-year-old Lithuanian girl who had them cut off by a hay mower became a nation-wide sensation.

Rassa Prascevichute lives in Germany nowadays. She says that she does not remember the accident itself, but she remembers that when the surgeon saw
her doing her first steps on her reattached feet, he burst into tears.
The surgeon, Ramazi Datiashvili, who currently lives in the U.S., shared with us this amazing story of incidents, accidents, difficulties and a happy ending.
– I came to the U.S. in 1991, barely able to speak English. Despite all of my Soviet regalia (a degree of a Doctor of Medical Science and a large amount of academic papers) I had to jump through all the hoops again and then do 5 years of residency. Long story short, it wasn’t easy. But nowadays I am a professor in the plastic surgery department at the UMDNJ/New Jersey Medical School and a proud apprentice of Boris Petrovsky, one of the greatest surgeons of our time.

– Does the surgery that you performed on Rassa remain unique today?

– Things develop over time, but uniqueness of each case remains. The definition of uniqueness is arbitrary in itself. Yes, Rassa’s surgery remains one-of-a-kind and unconventional by many standards, but surgeons all over the world performed and still perform similar ones every day. Therefore, I am not laying claim to having done something special.
What makes me proud in Rassa’s case is the fact that I managed to do everything I could in an absolutely hostile environment where everything seemed to be against us. I am proud of having overcome many obstacles on that fateful night. I am proud of the result and proud of Rassa being a fully functional person today. From the point of view of my personal experience, I can say with full conviction that I did a heroic deed that day as a young surgeon.
It’s almost a detective story. It started with a hay mower accident in a distant region of Lithuania, with barely any means of communication. An emergency plane took Rassa to the airport, but then it turned out that they forgot her sliced-off feet on a kitchen table of her home. They came back for them, but discovered that they had no ice, so they wrapped them up together with frozen fish to keep them cold.
On that day I spent 12 hours in the operating room, and the moment I went to sleep, I got a call: “You have a little girl coming, she’s in flight already.” Only later did we find out that higher-ups wanted to turn Rassa away, allegedly because Lithuania had its own team of microsurgeons and they “did not want to subject her to additional risk connected to transporting her to Moscow.” This is only partially true: the longer you delay the surgery, the higher is the chance that there will be complications, possibly even lethal ones.
Back then I was working at Hospital #51 in Moscow, which was also home to the Soviet Surgery and Research Center and an emergency surgery department alongside it. But it was a hospital for adults, and when I contacted local anesthesiologists about a 3-year-old girl, they refused, saying that they never had to anesthetize a child. Then I called my institute, the main building, and got a refusal there as well. Eventually I called Filatov Hospital (it had a microscope as well as a team of microsurgeons who underwent training at our institute) and the phone was picked up by a doctor on duty. He just gave me a bitter laugh: “We don’t even have resources to amputate limbs, and you want to reattach them?” I decided to use scare tactics and asked him: “Have you read the latest Order by the CPSU Central Committee, signed by comrade Andropov?” The doctor immediately backed down: “Come and do whatever the hell you want, then…”
Filatov Hospital was considered the leading children’s hospital in the USSR. But the welcome I was given upon arriving there was far from warm. I managed to phone USSR’s Ministry of Healthcare and got myself two chief anesthesiologists of the entire state, one of them pediatric. I spent the whole night running around the place – talking on the phone, preparing the operating room, going out to check if Rassa has been brought in yet. She arrived at 6 in the morning, when it was already dawn. I still remember that stretcher with white sheets and Rassa lying on them, pale to the point of being almost invisible.
The sliced-off feet were frostbitten, harder than wood. But we decided to perform the surgery anyway. We went to the storage room to get the microscope, but it turned out to be locked, and no one knew who had the keys. We decided that the resident doctor would have them, but he was on a vacation in his summer cottage. We sent a car after him, and intubated Rassa in the meantime. The driver came back empty-handed, saying that the doctor didn’t have the keys. Time was short, and anesthesiologists were insisting on starting the operation as fast as possible, because keeping a child sedated for such a long time was dangerous... But I couldn’t operate without a microscope! In the end, one of the anesthesiologists, Yuri Nazarov – my deepest thanks to him – managed to break into the storage room and retrieve the microscope. He then proceeded to conduct perfect anesthesia, allowing the operation to finally start.
Then a new problem presented itself – there were no assistants. I called Yasha Brandt, but he was taking care of his sick child. Still, I managed to persuade him to come. Then I got Lena Antonyuk to be a nurse. A full-fledged doctor nowadays, she was just a medical student back then. Four hours into the operation, I had to let them both take a break because they were tired. I didn’t leave though. I knew that if I stopped at least for a minute, I wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore because I would simply drop from exhaustion. Several hours later, the surgery came to a conclusion – the final stitch, warmth returning to Rassa’s feet, and new trials…
Still, I thank God for sending me such a test. I managed to pass it. And I am grateful to the world for having people like Rassa and other patients whom I have helped.

– Did you have similar cases in your subsequent medical practice?

– Of course I had, both there and in the US. Some of them even were covered by the American media. Grafts, transplantations, and the reattachment of limbs remain unique for a range of reasons, but from a medical point of view they aren’t overly complicated. Take full facial dermoplasty, for example – it isn’t technically different from an ordinary microsurgical skin graft or the transplantation of a hand that was taken from a dead donor. This is easier than the reattachment of the original limb. Uniqueness is arbitrary, as I’ve already said. Rassa’s case was made unique because of the humanitarian, emotional and social aspects accompanying it.

– When did you last talk to Rassa?

– A couple of months ago. She called me and said that she has become a mother. She is married and lives a happy life.

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