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Leeches for Black Eyes in Brooklyn

Q. Your column about using maggots medicinally for skin injuries brought back a memory of another long-ago treatment: LEECHES. Over sixty years ago, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the pharmacy in my neighborhood routinely sold leeches to guys with black eyes acquired in bar fights.

I had a friend whose father sent him to the drugstore up the street to purchase a few after a fistfight. The father was the type of person who attracted lots of fists.

A. A black eye is a bruise to the soft tissue around the eye. A century ago leeches were a common treatment because they sucked out the blood that caused the discoloration. Today, a cold pack is more available and appealing.

Leeches are being used these days in plastic surgery. Dr. Joe Upton, a surgeon at Harvard, remembered his Vietnam experience when he was faced with an impossible task in 1985. A young boy was brought to the emergency room after a dog had bitten off his ear.

Although such surgery had never before been successful in the U.S., Dr. Upton did his best to reattach the ear. Several days later the ear looked awful because blood clots had formed and the circulation was impaired. He decided to try leeches to reduce the swelling. They worked like a charm and the rest is history.

Dr. Upton wrote the story up in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Soon his colleagues hopped on the bandwagon and started using leeches after reattaching fingers, toes, noses and other organs. At last count, more than 60,000 leeches are used annually in the United States, mostly to salvage replanted body parts.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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