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Surgery helps USPS supervisor and football coach get back to his teams

Rick is in his element when he’s leading and inspiring teams. A customer services supervisor with the U.S. Postal Service and football coach at La Center High School, Rick finds meaning in work and life by supporting the success of a group. That’s why when severe neck, shoulder, and arm pain surfaced in 2017 and kept him from contributing the same way he always had, it was a mental and physical blow.

“Being set back with my neck over the past year was difficult,” Rick said. “Not only was the pain debilitating, but it kept me away from my teams,” said Rick, who credits time in the U.S. Navy for giving him his appreciation for teamwork.

Rick’s initial symptoms included pain and stiffness in his neck upon waking. Eventually, pain began radiating down his shoulder. It became so intense that he ended up at urgent care. Imaging indicated a herniated disc and led to a consult with Vancouver Clinic spine specialist Dr. Nelson Saldua.

“Dr. Saldua told me, in addition to a herniation, three discs in my neck had deteriorated,” Rick said.

Surgery would stop the pain, Saldua said. He recommended an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion of discs C4 through C7. However, Saldua warned Rick he should expect to lose up to 30 percent of the range of motion in his neck.

“It was a lot to think about,” said Rick, who went home and discussed it with his wife. “We considered the prospect of me living in pain and that sounded pretty dark.”

Rick decided to move ahead with surgery. The prospect of living pain-free and Saldua’s background as a U.S. Navy surgeon fortified Rick’s decision.

“I figured that because of his experience operating on injured soldiers, I’d be in good hands,” Rick said.

Rick knew that Saldua had helped men and women severely injured in war in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. Saldua himself credits his military experience as a major contributor to his expertise in helping patients today.

“My time in the military prepared me to be comfortable with the unexpected and taught me to be flexible,” Saldua said. “I’ve been in such a wide variety of health care environments. No matter how stressful it can get in the clinic or the operating room, it is never more stressful or more austere than it is in a tent in the deserts of Afghanistan.”

Rick’s surgery went well, and when he woke from the anesthesia, he was out of pain and able to lift his arm above his head—a movement that had been too excruciating before. During his six-week recovery, Rick stayed immobile to allow his spine to heal.

“Throughout the healing period, I was asking Dr. Saldua and his team over MyChart, ‘Can I do this?’ ‘Can I do that?’” he said. “They were extremely responsive and helpful. The care and dedication they show is excellent. I can only imagine, if they’ve done this for me, they are doing the same thing for all of their patients.”

Rick gives high marks to everyone he encountered before, during, and after his surgery.

“Dr. Saldua is a very good doctor, but one thing I’ve learned is that you’re only as good as your team,” Rick said. “He has all of those folks working with him and they are who make it possible for a doctor to be a really good doctor.”

Post-surgery, Rick followed instructions for rebuilding strength in his shoulder, arms, and the rest of his body. In the end, he lost only 5 to 10 percent of his range of motion—far less than predicted. With kickboxing, neck stretches, and lifting weights, he’s well on his way regaining his health.

“Thanks to Dr. Saldua and his team, I am doing the things in life that I enjoy and am quite pleased to be contributing 100 percent again,” Rick said.

As for Saldua, he is pleased to be able to care for Rick and other military service members.

“I do certainly miss the comradery of the military and taking care of veterans gives me some time to talk about their military experiences,” he said. “Those conversations give me a sense of that military community again.”