Leeches find new place in medicine Surgeons in Albany use parasites to clear blood clots

March 06, 1997|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - They called it "the black medicine," but 6-year-old Jaimie Martineau wasn't completely fooled.

"That's gross," she recalls saying when doctors first placed the slimy, blood-sucking worm atop her right ring finger. She looked the other way.

A dozen leeches gorged themselves until they grew fat as cigars and fell off her hand. They were doing what modern medicine could not - blocking a blood clot and keeping Martineau's tender finger alive.

It was the third time surgeons at Albany Medical Center Hospital chose to combine modern, high-tech microsurgery and the centuries-old use of medicinal leeches to save a sliced-off finger.

Martineau lost hers ice skating. She fell to the ice Feb. 16 at the New Hartford Recreation Center near Utica, N.Y., not far from her home in Remsen.

In an instant, another person skated over her finger, cutting off three-quarters of an inch between the top two joints.

Someone grabbed her wrist to cut off the flow of blood. Someone grabbed her finger. Martineau looked the other way. Against the odds, doctors said they were able to reattach the finger during more than five hours of microsurgery at the hospital.

Dr. Debbie A. Kennedy, clinical assistant professor of surgery, and resident Dr. Danny Sun reconnected arteries as small as three-tenths of a millimeter in diameter, as wide as the barrel of a pin.

But the veins were too damaged to be reconnected and problems arose during Jaimie's first day of recovery. Blood was flowing into her finger and staying there; there were no veins to take it back to the hand. A blood-thinning drug, Heparin, didn't help.

That left one alternative - order a batch of clean, medicinal leeches for $6.50 each from Biopharm in South Carolina. Biopharm leeches have helped save limbs in 29 countries.

"They've been doing leeching for 3,000 years and they still haven't come up with anything better," hospital spokesman Richard Puff noted, after prying one of the oozing worms off a forceps.

The leech was a key part of 19th- century medicine, when bloodletting was believed to cure anything from headaches to gout. Later abandoned, it is now making a comeback among plastic and reconstructive surgeons.

By sucking the blood, the leech prevents blood accumulation and gives the body time to repair the microscopic veins, which usually grow back in three to five days, Kennedy said. Without them, Martineau almost certainly would have lost her finger, she said.

Martineau felt very little, if any, pain, Sun said, because leeches excrete a local anesthetic. They also produce a natural blood-thinner and an anticoagulant. Each leech was placed inside a test tube to keep it from moving off the girl's finger.

Martineau's leeching ended last week when the veins began to work. Doctors expect the girl to have full use of her hand within a year.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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