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Monday, April 01, 2013

Tokyo Leeches Sucked My Blood


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.

Leech shop in Ueno, Tokyo.
The shop in Ueno, Tokyo, where I bought my leeches.
After some time on crutches, the sprained left ankle healed enough to walk on, and now a year later it is back to normal when it comes to walking. (Incidentally the arthritis in the right knee has almost disappeared as well.) Yet, to this day the ankle is tender to the touch, swollen, and looks bruised.

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.

A wrapped bottle of leeches, Tokyo.
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.

A bottle of 5 leeches.
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 leeches to ankle in Tokyo, Japan.
Applying the leeches to my ankle: three down, two to go.
 Once home I unwrapped the bottle, got naked, gave my foot a bit of a soaking in a bucket of hot water (I couldn't be bothered running a full bath), and then, leg awkwardly bent to have my ankle pointing upwards, unscrewed the cap. I held the mouth of the bottle to the bluest-blackest patch on my ankle, and within a couple of minutes three leeches had attached themselves.

All five leeches attached to my ankle, Tokyo, Japan.
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.

Leeches getting engorged in Tokyo, Japan.
All five leeches getting engorged on my blood.
I now had five glossy dark brown worms flat against my ankle at various stages of ingest. The longer they stayed there, the longer they grew. What had been blobs now became slender, starting with a tiny, flared, circular mouth that drew into a slightly narrower neck, and which then extended along into a gradually distending, lengthening and eventually pendulating, occasionally pulsating, body.

One hungry leech left, in Tokyo, Japan.
4 leeches are full and have dropped off, only 1 hungry one left.
I sat beside the bath reading John dos Passos on my Kindle (a passage in U.S.A. about Dr. French and his demise, aptly enough), putting my book aside now and then to photograph the leeches, and admiring the sleek golden stripes that were now visible down the length of their increasingly sleeker dark wet brown hides. After about an hour the first three leeches fell off, sated, and the last two about 15 minutes after that.

Fully fed leeches, Tokyo, Japan.
Five sated leeches, back in the bottle.
Once the leeches had fallen off, the bites they left steadily trickled blood, which, as the old man had told me, wouldn't coagulate - making for something of a gory mess. I scooped up the five, which had by instinct all sought out the darkest, wettest crevices of the bathroom, and put the now very plump quintet back in the bottle where it lay very still, in stark contrast to its pre-feed restlessness.

Leech puncture wounds in Tokyo, Japan.
The leech puncture wounds.
I put a couple of folded tissues over my ankle, and in about 10 minutes the bleeding had more or less stopped, but I have left the blood-soaked tissue there, topped with gauze, as pulling it off would no doubt start the flow again.

Bath bloody from leeches, in Tokyo, Japan.
Bloody aftermath of my leeching.
And the results? It’s now the next day and press and probe most of my previously tender ankle as I might, the slight pain that that would have caused before is completely absent. A little discomfort remains under my ankle bone, which is the spot where I didn’t place any leeches - so that will be the target area next time. The blue bruising, too, has been replaced by a healthy rosiness. Leeches work.

Ankle sprain improved by leeches, in Tokyo, Japan.
The next day, virtually all bruising and tenderness healed.
As to what to do with my beneficent parasites, I'm in a bit of a quandary. You can't use them again soon, because leeches don't have to feed for about three months after feeding. Flushing them down the drain or the toilet would feel gross. I was inclined to go down the river that runs beside us and release them there, but my thrifty partner suggested keeping them in a jar in the closet.

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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