In May, Sam Leon of DeKalb, Illinois experienced a serious hand injury while working as a machine operator and was facing amputation. Fortunately his hand was saved with the help of skilled surgeons and more than a thousand leeches.
The 32-year-old’s left hand was caught in a roller press and, horrifically, the machine ripped the skin off Leon’s hand and fingers. He was airlifted to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford and treated by plastic surgeon Dr. Pedro Rodriguez and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brian Bear.
Dr. Bear described the extent of Leon’s injury to WREX 13, "It tore all the veins, many of the nerves, some of the arteries to his hand." The doctors say that type of injury requires amputation 80 percent of the time. Leon’s hand was in bad shape and it was the most severe case the doctors had ever seen. Luckily, both physicians had experience with leech therapy and knew there was still a chance to save the machine operator’s hand. “The leeches are able to secrete a substance that is a very powerful blood thinner and it allows your wound to continue to drain until your own veins have reformed and you don't need them anymore," explained Dr. Bear.
Surgery repaired the nerves, veins and skin lacerations. WIFR 23 News reported that over the course of 29 days, every two hours, Leon placed the leeches on his fingers and palm to stimulate the blood flow. Though painful, the patient was focused and did it with help from nurses. "When it came right down to it, those leeches biting on that nail bed is the worst pain I have ever felt,” Leon said. “It was definitely a necessity and so sometimes you got to tighten up the belt and deal with it, because you know the alternative was losing my hand, or you know, skin grafts. It seemed like a good idea.” In total, 1,482 leeches and 41 units of blood were used over the month that he was in the hospital.
Doctors say that the patient’s hand will never regain 100 percent functionality, but they are working to get him to 80 to 85 percent. Sam Leon says that he feels his hand is getting stronger every day. Dr. Bear expressed, "The fact that we were able to save [the hand] was almost a miracle. It's safe to call it pretty much a miracle. We weren't certain it was going to live."