It wouldn’t be a Call The Midwife Christmas episode without a handful of traumatic moments for everyone to fret over, and this year’s episode not only has births aplenty but also the fraught run-up to Lucille and Cyril’s wedding.
It’s not just a matter of whether they will get to the church on time, but whether they will get there at all after Lucille ends up with a particularly nasty swollen eye following some pre-wedding celebrations.
"It was prosthetics, and my eyes were closed the whole time, pretty much," Leonie Elliott (Lucille) explained to RadioTimes.com and other journalists. "And that took some getting used to, because I was walking around set, and it was literally just being able to see out of one eye."
It’s probably best Elliott couldn’t see much as the treatment used on her character Lucille isn’t for the faint-hearted – a leech, of all things, was applied to her inflamed eye to suck the blood away. And yes, real leeches were brought in for the scene.
"You grab a leech in the middle [with tweezers], and leeches are quite autonomous things that are kind of alive at every part of their body, like they have a head everywhere," Stephen McGann (Dr. Patrick Turner) said of their wriggly guest stars. "So they go 'Hang on, we don’t like this.' So each side of the leech goes, 'stop it, stop it, stop it…'"
"It could have gone incredibly wrong!"
What were leeches used for, and are they still used by doctors today?
Leeches are parasitic worms that usually live in fresh water. The medicinal leech – the ones used by doctors for thousands of years – attaches itself to a host (such as human skin) with a sucker. They secrete a chemical called hirudin to prevent the host’s blood from clotting, and then suck the blood. When they’re full, they drop off their host.
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Other fun facts about leeches that you can tell everyone over your Christmas pudding include: they ingest up to 10ml of blood at a feeding, which is almost 10 times their body weight, they have three jaws, and they have around 100 teeth.
There are historical examples of leeches being used to draw blood from patients dating back to Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek texts, while Roman author and historian Pliny the Elder wrote that they were used to treat gout and haemorrhoids in his neck of the woods. Another stomach-churning use for leeches in the Middle Ages was to treat tonsillitis by dangling one on a string down the patient’s throat.
Poems and paintings featuring leech-gatherers (people who collected leeches for a living), include William Wordsworth’s 'Resolution and Independence', and if you head to the Science Museum in London. you can see an example of a leech jar from around 1830-1870 that would be used to collect the creatures. Later, in the 19th century, leeches became such a popular treatment that they were bred specifically for medical use.
By 1966, which is when the Christmas episode of Call The Midwife is set, medicine had advanced to the point that leeches were rarely used as a medical treatment, which would explain why Dr Turner is so surprised when the idea is floated.
However, more recently leeches have enjoyed a comeback of sorts. In the late 1980s, doctors discovered that they were very useful in reducing swelling after microsurgery, while in Korea in 2018 it was reported that the worms were being used to treat rare skin disease purpura.
Dr Dong-Ha Han (who is nicknamed Doctor Leech, of course) has spent a decade researching medical leeches and how they can be used to treat conditions such as rheumatic arthritis, vasculitis, migraines and gout.
"The theory is you make them bite and suck clotted blood vessels, allowing fresh blood to circulate," he explained to ABC News.
"Patients are usually quite shocked by it at first," Patrick Reavey, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York told Popular Science. "I wouldn’t say I’m squeamish, but a leech is a little intimidating. It was freaky – you know, it’s a leech."
'Leech therapy' is still used in the UK (with patients’ consent, naturally), often following plastic and reconstructive surgery in order to improve blood flow in an area of tissue that has poor circulation.
If you want more information on this topic, our favourite medical document is 'Why you should love a leech' by Susan Isaac for the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Read more on Call the Midwife:
- Everything you need to know about Call the Midwife season 11
- Call the Midwife’s Stephen McGann discusses “big” season 11 moment
- Call the Midwife’s Helen George teases romance for Trixie and Matthew
- Call the Midwife’s Jenny Agutter hints at what’s in store for season 11