Yesterday was somewhat squeamish, but its real, and painful, beginning goes back many months - to last April when for the first time in my life I began suffering from mild arthritis in my right knee. Going down stairs, however, would jolt that mildness into severity; so once, semi-hopping on my left leg down a flight of concrete stairs near Ueno Park to try and keep the burden off my right knee, I slipped and fell, severely spraining my left ankle, and giving myself two bad legs.
|The shop in Ueno, Tokyo, where I bought my leeches.|
Then the other day, I was watching a program about leeches that my partner had downloaded. It made me think about my ankle. It described how leeches are used to stimulate blood flow in fingers that have been chopped off in accidents until they can be sewn back on. A leech sucks blood at just the right pace to keep blood flowing through blood vessels, aided by its excretion of an anticoagulant in its saliva called hirudin.
Hearing this, I wondered if the tender, blue-black bruising that remains on my sprained ankle might respond to that kind of stimulus and start growing pinker and healthier looking. A quick internet search of the Japanese word for leech, hiru (clearly the root of the word “hirudin”) and sale, hanbai, quickly located a shop in the nearby Ueno area of Tokyo, the very place where the problem had begun.
I cycled there this morning, and it turned out to be a tiny traditional Chinese medicine dispensary. I walked up to the glass door, saw just inside a diminutive, bald old man sitting by himself on a stool in the narrow space in front of the counter. I went in. There were large jars of dried snakes and other decidedly non-synthetic cures arrayed on wooden shelves. The proprietor was chirpy, talkative and helpful. He said, yes, he had leeches, but expressed a touch of bewilderment when I said I wanted them for an old sprain. He said they are typically used to relieve katakohri, i.e. stiff shoulders, but said that they may well benefit my ankle - I would have to try them and see.
|The wrapped bottle of leeches.|
Leeches were 200 yen each. I thought five would do me. He went over to a large glass bowl, took a pair of tongs, removed the cloth cover, and picked out five of the scores of slender, dark, writhing black leeches inside. They seemed pretty tough for all their squiginess, able to be picked up without the need for particular delicacy or care. They were small, only about a centimeter long, but very flexible - quickly stretching to three or four times their length when picked up, and then into a tiny ball in instant defense. He dropped the five one by one into a small bottle, screwed a lid on it, and wrapped it up for me.
|My five little leeches, just unwrapped.|
He explained how I should go about applying them: take a bath to warm up my ankle, then sit with my leg out (in air, not under water), take the lid of the bottle and hold it mouth-down over the spot I wanted the leeches to attach. He said I would probably have to tap the end to encourage them out, and that it could take up to 20 minutes before they all hooked on. I should then wait until they naturally drop off, which they do when sated - which could take up to two hours. I should then place some folded tissues over the puncture wounds, which would take a much longer time than normal to form a scab. Once a scab had formed, I shouldn’t touch it for 24 hours.
I paid my 1,000 yen, took the bottle of dark, wrapped up slitheriness, put it in my jacket pocket, said goodbye and cycled home.
|Applying the leeches to my ankle: three down, two to go.|
|All five leeches: the 3 middle ones, attached for a longer time, much plumper than the other 2.|
There was pain of about 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being least severe) as the tiny teeth went in, like a minor pinprick of about a minute and a half duration. After that there was no sensation at all. The last two in the bottle perversely worked their way against gravity up to what was in normal circumstances its bottom, and no amount of tapping on the end would bring them down. So after about 15 minutes of fruitlessly holding the bottle to my ankle, rocking it, and flicking the end, I put the lid back on, roughly shook them down to the lid end, removed the lid while they were there, and physically pulled them out with my fingers. But not even placing them on the ankle was enough at first to make them take a bite. They had to be corralled for a minute or so by finger before the by now familiar pinpricks finally made themselves felt.
|All five leeches getting engorged on my blood.|
|4 leeches are full and have dropped off, only 1 hungry one left.|
|Five sated leeches, back in the bottle.|
|The leech puncture wounds.|
|Bloody aftermath of my leeching.|
|The next day, virtually all bruising and tenderness healed.|
So there my five leeches remain, in a jar half-filled with water that was left to stand overnight to release as much chlorine as possible, and with a gauze cover rubber-banded to the top. Apparently they need their water changed every 3 or 4 days. Checking on them now, three are clinging to the side, mouthparts just above water level, and the other two are resting on the bottom.
All going well, the leeches will next be brought out to feed in early summer.
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