Meet Nick Stephanovic
For Nick Stephanovic, 2019’s fourth of July celebration was not much different from any other. He mowed the grass, raked the clippings, and set up chairs and a tent before hosting a party at his house. But the then-34-year-old didn’t realize that trouble was brewing inside the pair of shoes he wore for 15 hours throughout the day’s work and festivities.
“I woke up the next day, and my right toe was oozing,” Nick recalls. “I wrapped it up for the day, and when I unwrapped it that night, not much had changed. I knew that wasn’t good.”
Thinking he may have had a water blister or a callous that burst, the McKeesport-native decided to visit the UPMC East Emergency Department, where he was prescribed antibiotics and instructed to follow up with his primary care provider (PCP) in two weeks.
“My PCP took a look and told me I had a pretty nasty staph infection,” Nick explains. “He said the antibiotics helped keep it at bay, but it was growing.”
To make matters worse – Nick – a diabetic – had been keeping the weight off his injured right foot by overusing his left foot, developing wounds there as well. By the end of the month, Nick’s doctor referred him to UPMC Wound Healing Services at UPMC McKeesport, where Jessica Sciulli, DPM, became his foot specialist.
“From that point on, the wound care team at UPMC McKeesport became my family,” Nick says.
Recoveries and Setbacks
In March 2020, Nick’s condition improved to the point where he could return to doing activities he enjoyed, including bicycling and playing with his young son. But two months later, Nick thought he may have pulled his groin muscle during a bike ride. He hoped it would heal, but by July, he couldn’t take the pain anymore.
“I was back at UPMC East, and a full body MRI revealed that I had a bone infection known as osteomyelitis,” Nick recalls. “It had been lying dormant but moved up from my foot to my hip, pelvis, and spine.”
Nick decided not to have surgery at that time, opting for 11 weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment at home. That helped his condition improve…for a while.
A New Approach
Nick was thankful to have a relatively quiet year in 2021. He went months without having to see a doctor and was feeling much better. But by the fall, his infection had returned, and by December, he was back in the hospital.
Nick begged to be home before Christmas – and he was – but in January, the wound care team in McKeesport tried a new approach.
“For five weeks, I came in and received skin grafts, which were wrapped around my big toe on my right foot,” Nick explains. “These were from deceased donors, so doctors didn’t have to take skin from somewhere else on my body.”
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
By January 2023, Nick’s infection had moved from the inside of his bone to the outside, causing an abscess. This time, he opted for surgery with Dr. Sciulli.
“She went in and got everything cleaned out around my foot,” Nick says.
He then began 30 days of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which delivers a greater-than-normal amount of oxygen to your body tissues to stimulate growth factors and stem cells, ultimately strengthening the body’s natural wound healing process.
As part of HBOT, patients lie in a specialized stretcher within a spacious, clear chamber. Pressure in the chamber is slowly increased, creating an effect similar to a diver going deep under water. Patients “resurface” near the end of the “dive” as the chamber is slowly depressurized.
Throughout his treatment, Nick spent two and a half hours inside the chamber each time.
“I was able to watch TV while in the chamber, but as an extravert, I really wanted to talk with everyone who came into my room,” Nick recalls with a laugh. “I have very sensitive ears, so I was worried about feeling pressure, but there were no problems. Everything was handled flawlessly.”
“Daddy, You’re Healed!”
Nearly four years after waking up in pain on the day after his fourth of July party, Nick was able to confidently walk out of the office in McKeesport after his final HBOT session. He’s been told he won’t need to return unless he wants to.
Nick and his five-year-old son were excited to be at Kennywood Park on opening day in 2023, and he won’t forget the joy in his boy’s voice when he came to the realization that “Daddy, you’re healed!”
Nick also looks forward to doing the “little things” that he once took for granted – household tasks like yardwork and taking out the garbage.
“For so long, I had to be careful with my feet and couldn’t take risks that might cause the wound to open.”
A pastor of a church in White Oak, Nick says he received a lot of support from his congregation and community. But the impact of his care team has left an undeniable impression.
“I can’t speak highly enough about how professional every person is in the wound healing office in McKeesport,” Nick says. “They were with me through the highs and the lows and kept me on course. The service they provide is truly amazing. They saved my foot.”
Nick’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.