Navy veteran. First-generation American. Spine surgeon.
Vancouver Clinic’s Dr. Nelson Saldua is a well-regarded and experienced orthopedic surgeon and Navy veteran. As a spine specialist, he performs some of the trickier operations in medicine, working mere millimeters away from nerves that control the body’s every movement. His patients are frequently suffering when they are referred to him with bulging discs, narrowed spinal canals, and other conditions. After surgery, they use words like “pain-free,” “amazed,” and “night-and-day” difference.
Yet behind the impressive career is a regular guy whose favorite title is “Dad.” He’s a man who raps in the car and who, like many children of the 80s, once thought he had a legitimate chance of playing point guard for the Lakers. He even got into health care in part because of his parents’ practical encouragement that “it’s a good, reliable, recession-proof job.” Of course, Saldua also had the interest and aptitude to go with it. He excelled at math and science and liked the idea of being able to improve people’s lives.
After he graduated high school, Saldua attended the University of California in Los Angeles where he majored in biochemistry. He was wary of the six-figure debt associated with medical school and decided to join the Navy and attend the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. There he accrued a different kind of debt—seven years of service.
“I joined the Navy at age 24 and had no idea what I was getting myself into,” the now 44-year-old said. “The world was a different place in 1998. You thought to yourself the odds you’ll be in harm’s way are not great.”
Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Saldua was in his final year of medical school. Once he completed his training he was put on active duty, deploying twice. He served as a primary care physician for sailors aboard the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf from 2003 to 2005. He deployed again in 2012 to a NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Being a physician in the middle of a war zone honed Saldua’s ability to deal with the unexpected during surgery. He spent several months at a satellite base in Afghanistan where the environment was less than ideal.
“We were essentially operating in a tent on wooden tables in austere conditions,” he said. “You want to be particular, but you can still do surgery. It’s taught me to be more flexible with whatever circumstances or scenarios I’m in.”
After his second deployment, Saldua returned to the U.S. and worked as a spine surgeon at Naval Medical Center San Diego. With 14 years of service under his belt, Commander Saldua opted to separate from the military. He was now married and the father of four kids, two boys and twin girls, and didn’t want to risk another deployment.
Despite the fact that he was closer to harm than he ever anticipated and had to see the trauma of war up close, Saldua said he doesn’t regret joining the military and would do it all again.
“It got me the medical training I wanted,” he said. “I went to places I’ll probably never go to again. You take care of people who really needed your help at that time in their lives. The medical care that you provide when you are deployed is a practice that you can never replicate any other way.”
Saldua’s service also provided another unique benefit—a connection with fellow veterans who walk into his exam room.
“We have shared similar experiences,” he said. “It gives you a level of credibility that you have been in the service. It’s familiar. They say, ‘After what you’ve seen, I want you doing my surgery, because you’ve seen the worst.’”
With all his patients, Saldua strives to be straight-forward and honest about what spine surgery can and can’t accomplish. It doesn’t work in all circumstances, and he’s not afraid to tell patients that they aren’t good candidates. For those patients he can help, Saldua takes the time to walk through their images in person, include family members in the conversation, and send computer animations of what will happen during surgery.
“In orthopedics, you deal with a lot of people in chronic pain, but when you do have an answer, it’s dramatic and wonderful,” he said.
Saldua partners closely with staff at Vancouver Clinic to ensure patients have all the information they need about a surgery and are getting excellent care at every point. The front desk makes sure patients are submitting forms with essential medical background. Medical assistants know the particulars of different surgeries and can counsel patients about after-care questions. A physician assistant oversees post-surgical care. The operating room techs at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center often know what instrument he wants simply by the way he’s holding his hands.
“That’s remarkable,” he said. “It allows me to focus on protecting those nerves and putting everything in the right spot. My team is just that good at anticipating what’s next.”
Of course, Saldua’s favorite team can’t be found in a clinic. It’s the one he comes home to every evening.
“I’m not one of these guys who jumps out of airplanes and skydives,” Saldua said. “I want to spend as much time as I can with my family. We took our first family of six vacation to L.A. recently. They wanted to go someplace with a good hotel pool. Maybe that sounds boring, but I love spending time with my wife and kids. The more I can do of that the happier I am.”