Back Better: Providence St. Joseph patient goes from the 'worst pain ever' to better than ever

July 14, 2022 Constance Martin

Dave Ricci, 52, has played football most of his life.

A classic linebacker—at 6 foot 2, he’s now around 230 pounds, after losing 35 pounds—he played at Brea Olinda High, then at the University of New Mexico, where he was sidelined by a leg injury, and eventually landed as a football coach for Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo. And you have to know that’s a very active job.

“You’re almost like one of the players,” Ricci says, “demonstrating drills, running between stations, constantly moving around for two to three hours of practice. I was defensive coordinator, so I was constantly thinking of ways to make us better. It was on my mind 24/7. And I loved it “

You might say it’s one of the most active jobs you can imagine. Add to that his regular time in the gym, some time doing CrossFit and kettlebells, and F45 circuit training and he has been one very active man.

Until a few years ago, when his back started hurting. He had a surgery elsewhere, but had complications and he feels he never really recovered from it. Then he tweaked his back on the job, and “the numbness and pain in my right leg was excruciating. I had never, ever experienced pain like this in my life. It was shocking.”

The pain was so bad, Ricci says, that “I would have done anything to get rid of it.” He remembers going to a Seahawks game with his parents in Seattle. “We flew up and, even though I was in the midst of the extreme pain, we decided to go to the game. I remember I could barely walk out of the stadium. Tears were streaming down my face. My family says they’ve never seen me in so much pain.”

Then he found Providence St. Joseph orthopedic surgeon and spinal specialist Jeremy Smith, MD. “David’s was a chronic injury—severe degenerative disk disease with instability and stenosis—caused by years of trauma,” says Dr. Smith, “mainly from repetitive contact sports. Once his disk was injured, it got progressively worse and caused significant pressure on his nerves.” The doctor performed an anterior lumbar fusion at L5-S1 and inserted a titanium plate.

Ricci raves about his care at Providence St. Joseph: “From the first moment I met Dr. Smith, I had complete confidence in him and his staff. I knew I was putting my life in their hands, and I trusted them. Dr. Smith exuded a sense of confidence, knowing just what I needed and what he was going to do.” Ricci was admitted to Providence St. Joseph for the surgery, which, according to Dr. Smith, “lasted about 45 minutes. A minimally invasive anterior approach, no complications.”

His recovery was remarkable. “I have to tell you, that surgery fixed me,” Ricci says. “It was as if I got a brand-new spine, and life just came back. I didn’t need much recovery time, had no lingering side effects, didn’t really even need physical therapy. I was fixed.” He went back to teaching within about 10 days and was fully functional in six to eight weeks.

“He was a motivated, healthy patient, eager to get better,” Dr. Smith enthuses. “His preoperative levels of health, fitness and function were important factors, and he had an isolated severe disease to a single level that we were able to fix. That’s why he did so well.”

Ricci’s wife, Jen, certainly had her hands full at the time; one of their sons had knee surgery just three days before Dave’s back surgery, “so she was nurse of the decade for those few weeks.” Ricci has retired from coaching and is currently teaching American government at Capistrano Valley High and a business course at Saddleback College. Their two grown sons are on their own now, so he lives with Jen and their bull mastiff, Roxy, “a COVID puppy. About his back, he says, “It is perfect now.”

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