Robert Olewinski had just about given up hope of ever getting back to his twice-a-week fishing trips.
For three years, he had suffered persistent and painful wounds on his left calf.
By the time he started seeing Drue Orwig, DO, a Spectrum Health physician specializing in wound care, he could barely leave the house, let alone go fishing.
But this summer, the bass, bluegill, perch and walleye of Lincoln Lake had better watch out.
“I just couldn’t do it last year. I didn’t have it in me,” Olewinski, 68, said. “This year, I’m planning to get back out there and enjoy fishing.”
The result: His wounds are now healed.
What ultimately worked? A cutting-edge new treatment that involves sending a tissue sample of the wound to a specialized lab, where the bacteria can be analyzed down to the DNA level.
That information is then used to create topical antibiotic treatments to fight the wound.
“This is much more elaborate than what we can do in a standard lab in a hospital,” Dr. Orwig said. “We have found it to be successful in these patients that everything else had not worked.”
Olewinski’s journey started in 2018, when he started developing small wounds in the lower part of his left leg. They were likely the result of swelling and water retention.
“They would heal up a little and then get worse,” Olewinski said.
When he and his wife moved to Gowen, north of Greenville, he learned about the wound clinic at Spectrum Health United Hospital, where he met Dr. Orwig.
Dr. Orwig also practices at the Spectrum Health Limb Care and Wound Healing Clinic in the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Her team expanded to open a clinic in Greenville, with the goal of bringing specialized advanced wound treatment closer to home for patients like Olewinski.
“In the Greenville clinic, we can now do almost everything that we can do in our Grand Rapids office,” she said.
That’s a valuable service for patients who likely need to visit the clinic once a week for wound cleaning and other appointments.
“That becomes a lot for patients needing to come to Grand Rapids,” Dr. Orwig said.
In fall 2019, Dr. Orwig started using her many tools to help heal Olewinski’s chronic wounds, which had grown to encompass his whole calf.
She tried all the standard treatments available—specially formulated prescription ointments and topical sprays, various dressings, compression boots and socks.
The wounds persisted, however, and Olewinski’s pain worsened.
By the end of 2020, he had grown frustrated.
“I had had enough of it, every day living with that,” he said.
But Dr. Orwig had one last tool at her disposal.
She suspected Olewinski’s wounds had developed what’s called a biofilm, or bacteria living on the surface. That means it can’t be tackled with intravenous antibiotic, making it difficult to heal.
“What we have found is that typical cultures at the hospital aren’t able to catch the full picture of what’s going on,” she said.
In summer 2021, she sent a sample of Olewinski’s wound to a lab in Texas.
Based on success she had during a trial a few years ago with some of the clinic’s toughest patients, she had hope in this promising treatment, but it wasn’t a sure thing.
Dr. Orwig sent the results of the analysis to the pharmacy, where they created a customized topical treatment specially formulated for Olewinski’s infection.
Slowly but surely, it worked.
“It was kind of a miracle,” said Olewinski, a retired engineer.
“She never gave up,” he said of Dr. Orwig. “I thought for sure I was done, and I was going to have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
He added: “She needs a big star by her name.”
He also credits his wife, who did the painstaking daily work of administering treatments and changing dressings for years.
“She was the one who did it every day. She had to live with me,” he said. “I couldn’t have made it without her, that’s for sure. She’s something special, that one.”
They celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary on June 29. And they’re making some long overdue plans for gardening, yardwork, odd jobs around the house, traveling to see friends and, of course, fishing.
“I’m very elated that’s behind us,” he said.