For more than half his life, Joe Sawicki, 41, missed out on the smell of fresh-cut grass. The aroma of steaks on the grill and cookies fresh from the oven.
“I mean, you could drive somewhere and somebody’d be like, ‘Oh man, that smells so good,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I got nothing,’” said Sawicki, of Allendale, Michigan.
Things had been this way since he was 19, just a year after he started working in the drywall business, the air around him swirling with plaster dust.
For the first 10 years, his deficient sense of smell and taste didn’t bother him much. He didn’t give it much thought.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “You just kind of get used to it. You know, you’d eat food for texture and just because you need to eat something.”
After opting for sinus surgery in his early 30s, he regained his sense of smell. But it didn’t last. Six months later, he was back where he started.
It took him another 10 years—and a life-threatening illness—to get his olfactory function back a second time.
Sorting out the symptoms
Sawicki doesn’t spend much time sitting around.
When he’s not working with drywall, he’s busy with other pursuits: pumping iron, chopping wood, boating, running 7 miles a week, riding his Harley.
It’s not normal for him to come home from work and crawl into bed, but that’s what he did on a Friday night in May 2017. Friends wanted him to go riding, but he turned them down, feeling under the weather.
“I’m like, ‘I’m not getting on my motorcycle. Something’s not right,’” he said. “So I’m like, ‘I’ll just sleep it off.’”
Two days later, things looked worse. Sawicki, a guy who could normally pick up 100 pounds with one hand, struggled to lift a gallon of milk.
When his girlfriend, Lisa Mulder, called to check on him that Sunday morning, she couldn’t understand his speech. It came out “sounding like the ‘Peanuts’ teacher,” he said.
Within the hour, Mulder had him at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s emergency department.
After ruling out stroke, the doctors investigated other causes for his slurred speech, facial weakness, double vision and poor reflexes.
A CT scan had revealed Sawicki’s blocked sinuses, and his neurology team suspected his symptoms could be related to cavernous sinus thrombosis—a blood clot at the base of the brain caused by the spread of a sinus infection, which could ultimately lead to a brain abscess.
“It wasn’t clear if his neurological symptoms were related to sinus disease or something else,” Dr. Cox said.
Needing to know if they could rule out cavernous sinus thrombosis, the team ordered an MRI. Thankfully, Dr. Cox said, the MRI showed no evidence of sinus-related complications.
This allowed the medical team to focus on other diagnoses.
Sawicki’s sinus issues could be dealt with down the road.
Meanwhile, Sawicki continued to deteriorate before the doctors’ eyes.
“In a matter of two hours, I lost the reflexes in my knees, and it was going that fast,” he said.
Signs now pointed to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves, causing weakness, pain and sometimes paralysis.
A spinal tap showed elevated protein levels in the cerebrospinal fluid—another sign of Guillain-Barré.
With that evidence in hand, Sawicki’s team started him on a 10-day cycle of plasmapheresis, a process that removes antibodies from a patient’s blood before returning it to the body.
No one knew how his body would respond. He could either continued to decline, or he could get better.
Pain tore through his frame. His skin burned like fire. But by the time the plasmapheresis treatments were done—his personal “oil change machine”—Sawicki showed signs of improvement.
“I managed to dodge a big, big bullet. And they said, basically, the fact that I was in such good shape going into it probably played a factor into how well I came out of it,” he said.
After 10 days in the hospital, Sawicki went home to continue his recovery.
“You’ve basically got to go home and ride it out (as) your body starts repairing the nerves,” he said.
“I came out of the hospital 40 pounds lighter and couldn’t lift a Gatorade bottle.”
But with outpatient rehab and a ton of persistence, he rebuilt his strength.
After “two and a half months of hell,” he went back to work.
Not long after that—10 weeks after his hospitalization—he made it back up on water skis.
But Sawicki still had those blocked sinuses to deal with—sinuses that remained prone to infection.
In the fall, he followed up with Dr. Cox.
Sawicki’s chronic sinusitis likely stemmed from allergies to drywall dust and other irritants, Dr. Cox said.
Allergies can lead to chronic irritation and inflammation of the mucous membrane that lines the nose and sinuses. Inflammation, in turn, can cause polyps to form inside the nose and sinuses.
Sawicki’s polyps had grown so thick that his sinuses—pockets designed to hold air—contained no air at all.
Seven months after his trip to the emergency department, Sawicki underwent outpatient sinus surgery at Butterworth Hospital.
Using endoscopic instruments and MRI images for guidance, Dr. Cox dilated the sinuses and shaved off the polyps, restoring airflow in the sinus cavities.
“Today, sinus surgery is way different than it was five or 10 years ago,” he said. “The image guidance, the introduction of telescopes and that sort of thing, has really changed how we do sinus surgery.”
After a brief recovery, Sawicki’s sense of smell returned in force.
“Now I get to drive past and say, ‘Man, that pizza smells good,’” he said.
“Mowed grass—that smells good. I’m like, ‘Dude, you smell that? Dude, you smell that?’ … And they’re like, ‘Yeah, we do it all the time.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s kind of cool now.’”
Now that his sinuses are clear, he can breathe with his mouth closed. And he can enjoy the taste of food again.
“I’ve managed to put on some weight since I got my sinuses fixed,” he said.
To prevent a recurrence of polyps, he’s more careful to wear respirators and dust masks at work.
Looking back on his ordeal, Sawicki says he got off easy. He’s feeling strong again. He’s active. Life is good.
Yet he’s acutely aware of his vulnerabilities.
“It definitely puts a new perspective on life,” he said. “I guess I’m not quite so bulletproof anymore.”