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Surgery complete, an engineer gets back to drawing, diving

Battle Ground resident and Vancouver Clinic spine patient Larry asked a lot of his body from a young age.

“I grew up on a dairy farm, so even as a young kid I was working like crazy and getting tossed by cows,” the now 55-year-old said.

As an adult, he raced motorcycles—though thankfully never crashed any—and opened a hot rod shop where he restores antique, vintage, and muscle cars. In addition to the physical work of being a mechanic, Larry also spends plenty of time bent over a desk. His structural engineering firm, Precision Company LLC, designs buildings around the world.

He recently took a trip to Palau, Micronesia, where he checked on the progress of a 300-room hotel and squeezed in some scuba diving on the side. It was a trip that would have been unthinkable before his back surgery last October.

Two and half years ago, Larry’s hands started stiffening up into a claw-like position. As his symptoms progressed he lost feeling and muscle, and with it the ability to draw or tighten a bolt. He could barely use a fork and knife to feed himself. Everyday activities like brushing his teeth and tying his shoes where nearly impossible. A musician since third grade, he had to sit out of family jam sessions with his three brothers. The pain radiating down his arms was unbelievable.

“It was like someone was hitting me in the arms with a baseball bat all day long,” Larry said.

Unlike most patients, Larry had a good inkling of what the problem was. He had experienced similar symptoms 20 years ago and underwent a C5 and C6 spinal fusion as a result.

Larry talked to his primary care doctor who ordered an MRI of his back and referred him to Dr. Saldua, a Vancouver Clinic orthopedic surgeon with specialty training in spine surgery. Dr. Saldua reviewed the images, which showed a problem with his C6 and C7 vertebrae. He ordered additional tests, including a biofeedback exam to check that Larry’s nerves were healthy. He needed to make sure that surgery was the right option and that it had a good chance of restoring feeling and movement in Larry’s hands.

“I’m really appreciative of that,” Larry said. “You don’t want someone operating on your spinal cord for no reason.”

The tests results confirmed Larry’s suspicions and Dr. Saldua booked him for surgery.

“When I woke up from the surgery I thought, ‘Oh my God he’s an angel,’” Larry said. “I didn’t need any pain medication. My hands worked immediately.”

He went home and recovered without complications. At Larry’s follow-up appointment 30 days later, Dr. Saldua walked in the room to find him crying.

“I was so happy I was bawling,” Larry said. “I was like, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I can’t thank him or his staff enough.”

Today Larry is back to drafting, diving, and working on cars. (Of the 13 classics he owns, he’s partial to his ‘56 Cadillac and ‘69 Camaro.) The sounds of his guitar and saxophone can mingle with his brothers’ instruments again. His wife and two grown children no longer lovingly tease him with claw-hand jokes, wince to see him in pain, or worry about his mobility. The muscles in his hands that had atrophied with inactivity have almost completely recovered.

“I’m just enjoying life again,” Larry said.