SEOUL — For seven years, Duck-Im Kim and her family tried everything they could to cure a rare skin disease called purpura — a red or purple discoloration that some doctors believe is caused by bleeding underneath the skin.
"My legs started to swell one day," Kim, 48, recalls. "And then it got red, really red … all over, and lasted for weeks, sometimes months."
Besides the pain, Kim says she was too embarrassed to go out in public. It eventually led her into serious depression.
There is no definitive cause or cure known in modern medicine for purpura. Combined with inflammation, the hemorrhagic area begins with red spots, becomes darker into purple, and later fades away to a brownish-yellow color.
But now Kim is looking to another, less conventional method that she hopes will help treat her condition.
"When I was just about to give up, I learned through the Internet that making leeches to suck my blood could help," says Kim, as she sits in a waiting room in Handongha Traditional Korean Medical Clinic, in Seoul. "Disgusting, yes, but being desperate I had no other options left."
Dr. Dong-Ha Han — nicknamed "doctor leech" for his eight years of research on medical leeches — says he can treat patients with vasculitis, skin ulcer, atopic dermatitis, rheumatic arthritis, migraine and gout. His toolbox includes leeches that are starved for six months.
"The theory is you make them bite and suck clotted blood vessels, allowing fresh blood to circulate," Han explains, while holding a plastic container filled with inch-long leeches. The secret, he says, is in an enzyme known as Hirudin, a very powerful anti-coagulant in leech saliva.
The leeches are taken out of the container into a glass tube with which they can be slid onto the area of infection. Kim is now undergoing her fifth session of the treatment, which costs $220 per visit.
She flinches for a moment as the leech bites in.
"It feels like a needle poking, but the pain soon goes away," she sighs in relief. That's because leeches secrete local anesthetic enzymes naturally to avoid detection by the host.
Once attached, the leeches will suck blood from 30 to 50 minutes. From about an inch long, they will become more than three times that size. After completely feeding itself, the leech falls off and fresh blood continues to drip from that spot for a minute or two.
In this session, Kim has a total of 19 leeches attached on both her legs. During the therapy, swelling has been visibly reduced.
"The healing process allows fresh and oxygenated blood to stream into her infected area," Han explains. "That way, it would restore normal circulation."
Kim nods in approval. "It's gruesome at first. But I couldn't believe it when I saw the results."
Leech therapy dates back 2,500 years to ancient Egypt, where bloodletting was practiced in the belief that it would bring balance to the human body.
Bloodletting continued on to medieval Europe, where doctors used leeches to treat tonsillitis by hanging a leech on a string and inserting it down the patient's throat. The treatment was so popular that commercial leech trading became an industry.
But supply could not keep up with extremely high demand, which led to near-extinction of the leeches used in the practice.