Bambang Muryanto, Contributor, Yogyakarta
You will immediately be welcomed by the rancid smell of blood the moment you enter the consulting room of an alternative healer in Trayemen village, Pleret, Bantul, Yogyakarta.
Was it a room where surgery is performed? No. Inside, five adult males were undergoing therapy. They were sitting in a relaxed manner with their feet pointing upward.
At a glance there was nothing strange but when you looked at their feet, you would be surprised, and feel repugnance! Why? One or two large leeches had fastened themselves on the skin between the toes of these five men, sucking their blood greedily.
Large quantities of blood soaked into old newspapers placed underneath their feet. It was from here that the rancid smell came.
That was what was going on one day in a consulting room of Muhyidin, an alternative healer who uses leeches to cure people of a variety of ailments. “”This method can cure people of several illnesses like rheumatism, hypertension, lung disorders, diabetes and persistent dizziness,”” said 65-year-old Muhyidin.
Over 20 patients from various places, including from outside Java, visit him in a day. Most had word-of-mouth recommendations from other patients who were cured of their illnesses after allowing leeches to suck their blood.
It has long been known that leeches can be used to cure people of their ailments. In the past doctors often used leeches, worm-like creatures that live in a forest or swampy area, to take the blood of their patients.
The leeches used for this purpose were usually referred to as medical leeches (Hirudo medicinalis). The saliva of these leeches reportedly contains 15 chemical substances, one of which is hirudine, which can prevent blood clotting.
Long history of use
Chief of the parasitology department of Gadjah Mada University medical school Prof. Dr. Sugeng Juwono Mardihusodo, MSc, said that according to the history of medicine, leeches began to be used to treat illnesses as far back as 2,500 years ago, or exactly during ancient Egyptian times.
At that time, they were used only to take people’s blood. Reportedly, Avicenna (980-1037 AD), a noted physician in the Arabian peninsula, also used leeches to cure people of various ailments.
In Europe there was wide use of leeches for medical purposes in 19th century. Among other things, leeches were used to heal wounds sustained by soldiers of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte.
Muhyidin, however, has never formally learned the medical role that leeches can play. His own experience with leeches prompted him to provide his alternative medical service.
Muhyidin, who used to be a maker of stoves, knives and mosque domes, suffered from serious diabetes. He had a wound on the sole of one of his feet. As the wound would never heal, his doctor decided to amputate his legs. Muhyidin refused to have this amputation.
One day, while marketing the dome of a mosque in Muaraenim, Palembang, he met someone who recommended to him that leeches should be used to cure him of his diabetes.
“”After taking this therapy for two months, I was completely cured,”” Muhyidin, a father of two, said, showing a scar left by the wound on the sole of one of his feet.
Upon his return home from Palembang, he met someone suffering from the same illness. He advised this man to use leeches to combat this illness. After some time, he was also healed of his ailment. Inspired by this success, he later turned himself into an alternative healer using leeches as the medium of healing.
The process in detail
When he started his alternative medical practice in 2002, he said he was still afraid to hold leeches and fasten them between the toes of his patients.
“”At that time, I put the feet of my patient into a pail containing leeches. Using a short stick, I fastened the leeches on the feet of my patient,”” he said. He was in for more trouble, however, when he got more and more patients because the patients struggled with one another to get hold of the pail. I gathered my courage and held the leeches in my hand,”” he said.
When a patient comes to him, Muhyidin will agilely fasten hungry leeches between the toes of the patient. At first he cleans the part that the leeches will bite with the leeches’ mucus.
Leeches like cleanliness and will not bite a dirty foot. When a leech bites at his foot, a patient will not feel any pain because a leech bite is analgesic in nature.
Sometimes, a leech feels reluctant to suck blood. When this happens, Muhyidin immediately finds another leech that he keeps in a glass jar. Why must a leech be fastened between the toes? “”That is the terminal of blood vessels,”” he said. Besides, according to Prof. Sugeng, a person’s sole is home for various points of acupuncture that are linked to various body organs.
Sometimes Muhyidin faces an obstacle when treating a patient for whom leeches are repugnant. Indeed, a leech is not pleasant to the eyes. “”When I just hold the foot, the patient will scream,”” he said. That afternoon, a female patient from Semarang, who was suffering from diabetes, covered her face with a newspaper as she did not want to see the leeches fastened on her foot.
After one or two leeches are fastened between the toes, a patient must wait. Generally, a leech will be satisfied after sucking blood for 2 hours. If the blood circulation of the patient is not good, however, this process may take up to five hours.
When a leech is replete, its body will swell to twice the size of an adult’s thumb. When your illness is not serious, you will usually need four leech bites. If your illness is serious, you could need as many as 10.
The leeches that are loaded with blood will then be collected and bred on wet land somewhere around Adisucipto Airport. “”This place is chosen because it is still free of contamination by pesticides,”” said Muhyidin, who said he got his supplies of leeches from Palembang.
The blood-loaded leeches cannot be used again because they will not start sucking blood again until six months later.
Effectiveness of ‘hirudo’ therapy
After receiving leech (hirudo) therapy, some patients say that their condition improves. A UGM student suffering from rheumatism, who wished to remain anonymous, said after a leech sucked his blood, his legs did not feel stiff anymore.
“”The saliva of a leech contains the enzyme hialuronidase, which can break down the hialuronate acid and bind the connective tissue,”” explained Prof Sugeng about why leeches can cure people of their rheumatism.
H. Abdul Rozak, a heart patient from Tegal, Central Java, said that his heartbeat returned to normal after taking hirudo therapy twice. Sardjiono of Lampung, Sumatra, who had a stroke, can now walk again after two sessions of hirudo therapy.
Prof Sugeng said that a leech would suck blood containing the residue of metabolism that had been deposited for a long time. If this residue is not taken out, it can disrupt the functions of several body organs like kidneys, the heart and the lungs.
It is yet to be scientifically explained, however, how a leech can cure people with diabetes. Besides Muhyidin, another diabetes patient, H. Ahmad Nurhadi from Jakarta, has also been cured of this illness.
In a letter to Muhyidin, he said that after a session of hirudo therapy, the glucose level in his blood stabilized at below 120 mg/litre. It is still difficult to explain,’ said Prof. Sugeng, with great curiosity.
Although leeches can be used to cure people of various ailments, Prof Sugeng warned that not every patient could take this therapy.
If you have hemophilia, a rare disease in which blood continues to flow after a cut or other injury because one of the substances that causes it to thicken does not work correctly, then you cannot take hirudo therapy.
“”If you have hemophilia and take this therapy, your bleeding may be difficult to stop,”” Prof Sugeng stressed. Besides, hirudo therapy can also cause allergies, the possibility of additional infection and stress responses.
Although they look repugnant, leeches can cure several illnesses. With time, it has been discovered that more and more illnesses can be cured by hirudo therapy. Prof Sugeng even includes in his paper titled ‘Hirudo’ Therapy, the result of research conducted by Dr Andreas Michalsen et al of Essen, Germany (2002) to the effect that hirudo therapy is better than chemotherapy that uses diclovenac, a very potent painkiller.
With the cost of drugs and hospital treatment increasing, hirudo therapy is relatively cheap and can provide people with strong hope, especially the less well-off, that a cure is available for their illnesses.
There’s only one drawback, though: You have to overcome your repugnance of leeches.