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Ironworker's Fingers Replaced With Toes

Leeches Used In Surgery

POSTED: 8:00 am CDT June 29, 2004
UPDATED: 3:21 pm CDT June 29, 2004

Some doctors in the Bay Area were able to save a man's hand after a horrible industrial accident.

Images: Toes Become Fingers

For Scott Thornton, it was a typical day on the job doing ironwork on the new San Francisco Bay Bridge. In the space of a few seconds, however, a freak accident changed his life. As Thornton's hand tangled in rigging, his fellow construction workers were horrified.

"I was involved in an accident that pulled four fingers off my right hand," said Thornton.

Amazingly, doctors were able to transplant two of Thornton's toes -- one from each foot -- onto his hand.

"This is a toe and this is a toe," said Thornton about his middle and ring "fingers" on his right hand.

As for his index finger, Thornton has a leech to thank.

At the Buncke Clinic at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, a team of surgeons was able to reattach two of his fingers. During his recovery, though, Thornton almost lost his index finger when blood stopped circulating in the digit. To his amazement, his careworkers responded to the threat not with technology, but with zoology. The miracle cure: a leech.

"She went out, got the leech," said Thornton. "She put it on my finger, left it there for about 40 minutes, and the finger bled from the tip for two days after that."

Thornton admits it was a little strange to see the sluglike creature sucking his blood.

"You look over, see it pulsing like this, then you watch TV, and you look over again, and now it's fatter and it's pulsing, and you look away, look back, and it's big and fat," said Thornton

Microsurgeon Greg Buncke said that the leeches are, in their own way, exceptional.

"They're not the typical leeches you get out of a lake," said Buncke. "They are bred specifically for medical use."

The bloodsuckers, which typically feast for about 15 to 30 minutes, have helped hundreds of patients at the Buncke Clinic. Buncke said that the leeches are one case where science can't top mother nature.

"You use the leech to actually help drain the blood out of the finger," said Buncke. "Actually the leech has in its saliva some anticoagulant called herudin that helps with the blood flow in the finger."

"I know the leech saved my finger," said Thornton.

Buncke said that he keep the leeches hungry so that they're always ready to go to work.

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