Watch CBS News

Leeches Are Saving Lives In Maryland

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- When you think of leeches, most people think of the Dark Ages, when bloodletting supposedly cured all kinds of ailments.

Adam May shows why these bloodsuckers are making a comeback as modern medical miracles.

Leeches have been the subject of horror movies. They've been portrayed as scary, hungry critters lurking in fresh water. But now the on-screen killers are actually saving lives in Maryland hospitals. 

"I'm very thankful for those little leeches," said Judi Dudek.

Dudek is a four-year survivor of breast cancer. Complications during reconstructive surgery led to leech therapy. It's a treatment growing in popularity.

"There's really not anything else that can do specifically what a leech can do," said Dr. Scott Lifchez.

Lifchez is the chief of plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins Bayview. He explained how leeches also worked on a patient's foot that was badly damaged during a motorcycle accident.

"This entire area of his foot was literally ground down into the joint surface. You could look in open joints, tendons, skin. Everything that was normally in between was gone, literally ground away by the roadway," said Lifchez.

After a tissue transfer, leeches were placed on the new skin. As they start feeding on the patient, new blood vessels start growing. When the leeches get full, they simply fall off and the transfer takes hold.

May: "If it wasn't for the leech therapy, what alternatives would you have had here?"

"Watching, waiting and there was a chance some or, worst case scenario, all of the tissue wouldn't have survived," said Lifchez.

The ick factor plays a role, too.

"They grit it out. If it's either that or another major operation, most people will choose ick over another major operation," said Lifchez.

Dudek agreed, too.

"If it had been snakes, it would have been different feeling. But leeches, they didn't bother me, they didn't bother me," said Dudek.

In fact, they prevented another surgery.

In a way, patients sometimes credit leeches for their recovery.

"It did the trick, and I'm where I am at now because of them, and I'm happy with them," said Dudek.

The practice of using leeches isn't new. For centuries leeches were used in bloodletting, once thought to be a cure for numerous diseases.

In medieval times doctors used leeches for the wrong reasons and patients often got worse.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.