One of Plucinski's leeches.
All images and text © Nina Roberts
Blood-Suckers in Brooklyn: How The Old World Medicine of Leeches Survives
Published on theguardian.com, March 2014
“They are very hungry,” Andrew Plucinski says in a Polish accent, gesturing to the large glass jars where two dozen black, skinny leeches squiggle wildly in the water or cling motionless to the sides. “They didn’t eat for about six months.”
Plucinski, a leech therapist, is the proprietor of the Silesian Holistic Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Center might be too grand a word; it’s a one-man show in a Brooklyn loft. The 58-year-old Plucinski is tall, blond, with light blue eyes and skin more olive than pink. A wall of windows illuminates his high-ceilinged space, partitioned into different areas by freestanding bookshelves of various heights crammed with books on health, diet and detoxification.
Plucinski, an immigrant from Poland, places leeches on clients’ bodies to cure ailments, from sciatica to migraines, and for general good health. The designated leeching zone is an intimate space sectioned off to the side by hanging white sheets. Empty metal folding chairs and a cushioned table line the curtained off area where clients typically wait in white robes taking their leeches. Plucinski purchases all his leeches online from leech farms, which are delivered by courier.
This seems, to say the least, retro. Blood-sucking leeches are right up there with medieval bloodletting and plague for New Yorkers, the stuff of dusty old folios found in ancient libraries. But for some middle-aged immigrants from eastern Europe or Russia, hirudotherapy is considered an old folk remedy, popular with their grandparents’ generation. Some of them saw jars of leeches at pharmacies as children and remember sick relatives who were treated with leeches behind closed doors.
The tension between old and new is a big part of Plucinski’s existence. His clinic is in an area that remains, as it has been for decades, predominantly Polish. There are a few hipsters scattered through the neighborhood – runoff from the $4,000-a-month gentrified lofts of Williamsburg. He’s used to skepticism.
“I have been accused of quackery, that I say leeches are good for everything,” concedes Plucinski. “It’s not just me saying it, it’s the leech industry – which is huge!”
The leech industry does exist, but is difficult to find in the US. Leeches are used in some medical facilities but it’s not exactly advertised and most hirudotherapists like Plucinski are foreign; websites are usually in Polish or Russian.
Leeching might sound primitive but the FDA approved leeches as “medical devices” in 2004 to drain pooled blood after surgery. The most common use is after a digit replant (when a severed digit is surgically reattached) and reconstructive flap surgery, similar to a skin graft. Leeches suck out the pooling blood, known as venous congestion. If oxygenated blood can’t reach the digit or skin flap tissue because of pooled blood, it dies, which results in amputation or removal.
“This is going to sound hokey,” says Dr Matthew Carty, a plastic surgeon at Brigham & Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston who occasionally uses leeches, “but it’s really a reflection of the majesty of nature. With all of our science and technology, there is this organism in nature that can do just as good a job in terms of serving this function as the most advanced surgical techniques we have.”
In Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr Aletha Tippett who is a general practitioner uses leeches to help with patients’ varicose veins, neuropathy, and blocked arteries. Leeches are also used for pain reduction; Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City treated knee osteoarthritis with leeches for several years. Patients felt less pain and had greater movement in their knees according to the director Dr Arya Nielsen, but the program ended because of time constraints and funding considerations; leeches are not covered by insurance.
Some doctors who are familiar with leeching shrug their shoulders at a hirudotherapist like Plucinski using leeches, while others don’t approve of the little bloodsuckers making money for someone without a medical degree. Manhattan-based plastic surgeon Dr Kari Colen is alarmed at the idea. “You can get serious infections from leeches,” says Dr Colen, as leeches have a bacteria in their gut. She says antibiotics must be used despite leeches being bought from leech farms. “If a doctor used a leech and didn’t treat with antibiotics, it’s against standard of care,” she notes, “So how is it appropriate for people with no medical license to go around and do it?“
This kind of objection exasperates Plucinski. He counters that leeches have been used for thousands of years, long before the invention of antibiotics. “Pharos were cured with leeches!” he booms. He reports that none of his clients have ever contracted an infection from a leech. Plucinski believes the only reason doctors object to a person like him using leeches is because he’s “robbing them of their Mercedes”, as leeching is a fraction of the price of traditional medicine.
According to Plucinski 98% of all heath problems can be cured through leeches, diet and annual colonics. He claims to have helped one client with paralysis walk without his two canes after eight sessions; another client, he says, was spared a triple bypass surgery; ovarian cysts were said to have disappeared from another. More modest improvements include better sleep, metabolism, and energy and “less gasses”.
“Leeches work on many different levels,” explains Plucinski. “You feel pain there, you put a leech there,” he states plainly – on the knee for a torn meniscus, on the gums for a gum infection, and it’s obvious where they’d go for hemorrhoids.
In addition to localized leech application, he’ll place leeches on the body’s meridians, similar to acupuncture. Leeches attach themselves by biting, which feels like a pinprick. It then pumps in saliva that acts as an anticoagulant and anasthetic, and sucks out lymphatic fluid mixed with blood, according to Plucinski. When a leech becomes engorged, sometimes four times its original size, it either falls off or is removed after 10 to 30 minutes.
After the leech has sucked up all it can, Plucinski dunks each leech in alcohol so it dies and it’s disposed of; leeches are only used once. The tiny wound oozes about two to three tablespoons of bright red fluid for several hours, which Plucinski says is more lymphatic fluid than blood.
Client Marzena Bugaj is from Poland and found him through word of mouth, like most of his clients. She suffered from migraines and vertigo, and her prescribed medication produced severe stomach bacteria. Since her extended family used leeches when she was young, coupled with being desperate, she opted for leeching.
“Do I like them? No!” stresses Bugaj, describing how they latched on behind her ears, but she no longer has migraines or vertigo and the bacteria disappeared since she stopped taking medication.
Could these impressive results be the placebo effect? A mind-body reaction to a designated healer who patiently listens, gives advice, often in a client’s mother tongue?
“No,” replies Plucinski flatly, “We are talking about detoxification.” He believes that the pharmaceutical and medical “mafias” as he calls them, mask symptoms rather than fix problems.
What does he call varicose vein surgery? “Extortion!”
Even the dermatologist Dr. Zizmor who advertises his acne cures all over the city’s subway cars doesn’t escape Plucinski’s growing wrath, “Moron! It’s all about cleaning the liver!”
“If Dr Oz says ‘leech,’ it’s ‘Wow!’”
Plucinski hasn’t always worked with leeches. After arriving in the US as a refugee in 1980 and briefly cleaning toilets for minimum wage, he had a lucrative career as a private investigator. He made the ill-timed transition into residential real estate development in 2008; he says he lost $3m dollars in the ensuing housing crash.
Leech therapy might not be everyone’s obvious back-up career move, but Plucinski had been fascinated and actively researching body detoxification and leeching since the mid 1980s. His own knee – mangled from a skiing accident – was cured with leeches by a fellow Polish immigrant. “That was 1990, and I’m still skiing,” says Plucinski proudly. After attending a leech training program in Poland he opened for business in 2009.
About 85% of his clientele is foreign-born, from Russian housewives to Orthodox rabbis from Israel. The Americans tend to be those who were treated with leeches abroad or open to alternative medicine. Plucinski recognizes that in order for leeching to gain greater acceptance in the US, it needs some Americanized help.
“If I say to the average American, ‘leech’ they would say ‘Ugh!’” says Plucinski, mimicking the stereotypically easily disgusted American. “If Dr Oz says it,” pauses Plucinski referencing the celebrity TV doctor, changing his demeanor to adoration, “it’s, ‘Wow!’”
Plucinski believes Americans could warm up to leeching if it’s introduced through a safe vehicle like talk shows. Still, leeches have been featured on Dr Oz several times, and actress Demi Moore, a leech enthusiast herself, made the talk show rounds several years ago, but Americans are not exactly flocking to Silesian Holistic Center. Out of frustration Plucinski can go on a digressive riff about America being the only “bigot” country to turn its nose up to leeching.
It remains to be seen if leeching gains widespread acceptance as acupuncture has. Plucinski is hopeful, but even if mainstream America doesn’t catch on en masse, there are enough immigrants in New York City who come from eastern Europe and Russia, among other countries, to provide Plucinski’s leeches a steady flow of blood.