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How spine surgery put one patient back in the wilderness

Joseph Miller is an avid bow hunter and enjoys tracking game through the Goat Rocks and Indian Heaven wilderness areas for weeks at a time. Last year, however, his back was in so much pain he couldn’t leave the road. He was so weak that he couldn’t cut a Christmas tree. He hurt too much to play with his grandchildren.

“I was existing, but not enjoying life at all,” the 60-year-old said.

After years of dealing with degenerative disc disease in his lower back, Miller, a former pipefitter at the Camas paper mill, hit a breaking point.

“There’s nothing like nerve pain,” he said. “I’ve gotten through a lot of pain in my life, but I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Miller’s doctor referred him to The Vancouver Clinic’s Dr. Nelson Saldua, an orthopedic surgeon with specialty training in spine surgery. Together, they sat down and reviewed his X-rays and MRI images. Miller had a slipped disc, two discs that had collapsed, and a vertebrae that was pinching his spinal cord. Dr. Saldua recommended surgery as a long-term solution to relieve his pain. Miller was completely on board.

A few weeks later, Miller was at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center for the four-hour operation, during which Dr. Saldua replaced three discs with an artificial disc and rebuilt his entire lower back.

“Most people have an L2, L3, L4, and L5. I have an L,” Miller joked.

The surgery was a success and the recovery surprisingly fast. Fewer than two months after the operation, Miller was already able to pull his bow back again.

“Dr. Saldua is a fantastic doctor,” he said. “I’ve been almost virtually pain-free since the time of the surgery. For anyone to do as much work as he did to me and have such good results is amazing.”

Miller plans to continue to get his back and body into its former hunting shape and return to his favorite area within Goat Rocks in the next two years.

“I’m going to get there,” he said. “I don’t know the words ‘can’t’ or ‘stop.’”