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Spine surgery helps patient recover from bike accident

It was supposed to be a dreamy Mother’s Day afternoon. Arlaina’s husband Troy loaded their bikes into his truck, packed a picnic lunch and a thermos of hot coffee, and drove them out to the Lewis River for a ride. The weather was beautiful and they hit the trails as soon as they were done eating.

But about half an hour in, things went terribly wrong. Arlaina paused on the edge of the path to take a break. Her foot came down in a soft spot and the earth gave way. She rolled 30 feet down an embankment, hit a tree with her head and shoulder, and stopped just short of the churning river’s edge. A few feet further and she would have fallen into the icy waters and been swept downstream.

It was a nasty fall, but Arlaina was conscious and nothing seemed to be broken. Still, biking back to the trailhead was out of the question, so the couple slowly walked toward help. The first person they met on their way was an EMT who immediately assessed her. By the time they got back to their truck, the sheriff was there to escort them to Cougar. From there, Arlaina was transferred to an ambulance for a ride to the hospital. An initial CT scan didn’t turn up any damage and Arlaina was allowed to go home.

But while her bruises started to fade within a couple weeks, her pain didn’t. In fact, it kept getting worse. It wasn’t long before she had to stop grocery shopping and cooking dinner. She couldn’t stand up for more than a few minutes and became nearly bedridden.

“I was really scared that it was going somewhere irreparable,” she said. “Looking at a wheelchair at 49 is scary.”

Arlaina made an appointment with Dr. Nelson Saldua, a Vancouver Clinic orthopedic surgeon with specialty training in spine surgery. She knew him well because he had fused her neck earlier in the year. Arlaina is no stranger to back surgeries—she’s had seven of them since being in a severe car accident at age 25. Dr. Saldua ordered additional images and saw that a vertebrae above the prior fusion in Arlaina’s back had popped out of place during the fall. He recommended surgery and she agreed.

Any operation can present surprising complications once a surgeon is inside a body, and Arlaina’s situation was no exception. Dr. Saldua went in knowing that he didn’t just have to fix her vertebrae. He also had to clean up older surgery areas that had deteriorated. What he didn’t anticipate was having the very first bolt he touched snap off.

“Revision spine surgery can be challenging, especially when there is instrumentation already in place,” Dr. Saldua said. “We often are faced with trying to link new screws and rods to the existing screws. When I found out that one of the screws was broken it made it even more difficult.”

Fortunately, Dr. Saldua has deep experience adapting to the unexpected, a skill he honed while he was practicing medicine in a war zone. He immediately designed a new plan to stabilize her back and spent the next seven hours doing just that. It was an arduously long process, but it paid off.

“He has changed my world and I can’t be more grateful for that,” Arlaina said. “He made it so I’m living again. He truly was the best one for the surgery and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Today Arlaina is able to cook and shop again. She and Troy are back to taking scenic drives. She’s not in constant pain and is even contemplating another bike ride.

“I couldn’t be happier with my life and how it’s turning out,” she said. “It’s been a long road and I’m ready for some fun.”