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Leeches enjoy surgical revival

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
Leeches are seen in a bottle at the clinic of doctor Tatijana Gambar in Porec, west Croatia December 17, 2013. For the last three years, Gambar, who is aided by her husband Pino, provide leeching as a form of medical treatment in their clinic. The clinic receives and treats patients with various ailments such as gout, skin allergies and migraine. Picture taken December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic (CROATIA - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY HEALTH)

When Dr. Joseph Losee needs help getting a patient's blood flowing after surgery, he orders a batch of hungry, bloodsucking leeches.

“They do a very good job. Leeches are unique in that they're sort of designed for this,” said Losee, chief of plastic surgery at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, who uses leeches a few times each year.

Plastic surgeons and trauma doctors use leeches to help drain congested blood in damaged appendages or skin flaps. The leeches have a natural anticoagulant that breaks up small clots and keeps new ones from forming, allowing pools of blood to drain and blood to flow until vessels connect.

“Leeches are an invaluable device for helping patients heal after surgeries,” said Scott Drab, an associate professor of pharmacy and therapeutics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Leeches helped doctors in Children's Hospital repair a baby's injuries from a botched ritual circumcision in April, according to a civil lawsuit the child's parents filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The lawsuit claims Rabbi Mordechai Rosenberg, 54, of Squirrel Hill caused catastrophic injuries to an 8-day-old boy. A spokeswoman for Rosenberg's attorney, Paula Koczan of Weber Gallagher, said the firm does not comment on pending cases.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of leeches as medical devices in 2004, although their use dates to ancient Egypt. Bloodletting therapies were popular in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, until medical science advanced and bacteria became the focus of treatment. Their use was revived in microsurgery in the late 1970s, experts said.

“It was originally thought that patients had bad blood, like if they got infections, so what they did was use leeches and bloodletting to pull the bad blood out and help make a patient better,” Drab said. “If that didn't kill the patient, they were very lucky.”

Experts said that once the 1- to 2-inch-long worm is nudged into position on a wound, it can consume as much as five times its body weight in blood, about 10 milliliters in an hour. A leech's saliva has a natural anesthetic, so patients barely feel its bite, and when a leech is finished feeding, it falls off. Doctors dispose of the leech by putting it in a jar of alcohol, killing it.

Doctors use leeches to treat osteoporosis, severe bruises and skin grafts on burn patients, experts said.

At UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland, pharmacists keep leeches in a refrigerator, said John Horton, director of the pharmacy. The leeches live in water.

Although some doctors said patients find leeches “creepy,” most said their use is less traumatic than the reason doctors need to use them.

“Whatever the response might be is probably highly structured by the immediacy of the individual's predicament,” said Mark Siddall, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, whose research focuses on the evolution and bloodsucking ability of leeches.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or

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