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They're slimy, sprightly parasites who feed on a diet of blood and salt water. For centuries, leeches have dutifully served the medical community in the reattachment of injured fingers and limbs. Isabella "Leech Queen" Lawson, a registered nurse in the General Surgery Department of the Toronto Western Hospital, works with these bloodsucking creatures and has witnessed their therapeutic benefits firsthand. It's a sticky job, she admits, but someone has to do it.
UHNews: What do you do exactly? Isabella Lawson: I work with patients who have had traumatic injuries to their digits (fingers, thumbs or toes), hands or arms and require re-vascularization - for their arteries and veins to be reattached and for blood supply to be restored. These patients require close monitoring - checking turgor (fullness) and capillary refill (how quickly the blood returns to the finger after applying slight pressure to the skin of the finger), as well the colour and temperature of the finger.
How did you get to be the "Leech Queen"? I probably got the nickname because I leech at every opportunity. I also have 15 years of experience caring for these patients. I have leeched more times than I care to count!
When you tell people what you do for a living, what's their reaction? At first, people are taken aback that we still use leeches in this day and age. The usual comment is, "No way!" or "Really?" As a society we are focused on the biomedical model and don't appreciate alternative therapies, such as leeching, which can be so beneficial.
How are the leeches used? We use leeches to remove the blood from the patient's injured digit when the patient's own veins become incapable of doing so. The digit may appear dark purple or pink and its temperature will decrease, indicating the need for leech therapy.
How do you know when the treatment has been successful? The temperature of the patient's digit will increase and the digit will turn pinker - less purplish pink than it was previous to leech therapy.
Once the leeches are brought out, what happens next? The leech latches on to the bloodcongested finger. The leech removes the excess blood until it engorges itself. It then falls off and is put in isopropyl alcohol.
How long do the leeches suck? They usually feed or suck for 20-45 minutes.
Where do the leeches come from? The leeches we use for medicinal purposes are harvested at a leech farm.
Is there a technology or pharmaceutical drug that can do the same thing the leeches do? There's nothing that I am aware of that can accomplish what a leech can.
Why do you love to leech? Because I have seen the benefits of this type of therapy and the positive impact it has on patients.
What's the most important thing about leech therapy that a patient undergoing this treatment should know? Patients may be grossed out by the thought of having leeches on them, but those leeches may be the determining factor in the successful reattachment of their finger, hand or arm.