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The Juan Mata Story

  • Date Submitted: Jun 29, 2023
For over five years, Juan Mata endured debilitating back pain—pain so relentless he couldn’t do the things he loved most, like playing catch with his grandsons, weightlifting at the gym, or even working.

He couldn’t pinpoint the source of the pain. Was it the collision years before when a truck rear-ended his car? A few falls he had while camping? Twenty-seven years as a police officer—or a combination of the three?

He tried physical therapy, stability ball exercises, heating pads, over-the-counter medications. The pain always came back. After a while, he couldn’t even sit or stand in one position for long. Still, he wasn’t ready even to consider spinal surgery. “I was stubborn,” he says now. “Pigheaded.”

Then his primary care physician referred Juan to the Inland Neurosurgery Institute (INI), located on Casa Colina’s Pomona campus—and home to some of Southern California’s most renowned neurosurgeons.

Juan, now 67, already knew Casa Colina’s stellar reputation. As a member of the Pomona Police Department, he had availed himself of its rehabilitation services a few times for aquatic therapy and balance training for his knee and ankle pain. But he had never encountered its outstanding surgical services.

What he found at Casa Colina was a patient-focused environment, including a comprehensive program of education and navigation services for patients with back pain. “At other hospitals, you’re lost. They don’t prepare you like Casa Colina,” says Juan, who knows from experience. A few years earlier, he had knee replacement surgery at a different facility.

“It’s a whole different world at Casa Colina,” he notes. “I’ve never had that kind of attention anywhere else.”

The Casa Colina Spine Program’s full-circle approach is one reason it has received so many accolades. In 2023, for the third year in a row, Casa Colina was named one of America’s 100 Best Hospitals for Spine Surgery by Healthgrades®, which evaluates performance at about 4,500 U.S. hospitals annually.

Casa Colina also received Healthgrades’ Spine Surgery Excellence Award™ in 2022 and 2023, placing it in the top 5% nationally for spine surgery two years in a row. Other rankings include a Healthgrades Five-Star Recipient for Back and Neck Surgery™ (2021 and 2022), and for Spinal Fusion Surgery™ (2021-2023).

From the moment Juan met INI neurosurgeon Siraj Gibani, MD, Program Medical Director of the Casa Colina Spine Program, he knew he was in great hands. “He helped me understand what was going on with my back and gave me options of what we could do,” says Juan.

Tests showed the main source of his pain was severe arthritis and inflammation between his L3/4 and L4/5 lumbar discs. Located in the middle of the spine, these discs play a key role in supporting the torso.

“It’s important for patients to be given a range of options for addressing their spine ailments,” says Dr. Gibani. “Often, it takes a multidisciplinary team to address common spine ailments, and using multi-modal management can give patients their best success.”

Beyond world-class surgeons, that team includes physiatrists, pain management experts, a nurse navigator, and physical and occupational therapists. “Casa Colina provides a one-stop shop to give patients the best access to these resources,” says Dr. Gibani.

Initially, Juan opted to try an epidural steroid injection to eliminate his chronic pain. But, after about two weeks and little relief, Juan told Dr. Gibani to schedule his surgery. “I was ready to be pain-free,” says Juan.

Then, Stephanie Johnstone, RN, BSN, Nurse Navigator for the Casa Colina Spine Program, stepped in to prepare Juan for what would happen next.

Her goal as liaison between the patient and the care team is to understand each patient’s care needs before, during, and after treatment. “We want to empower them with knowledge and confidence in the hospital and out,” says Johnstone. “All of which helps to ensure better outcomes.”

Johnstone assists with scheduling, care coordination, education, and a willing ear. She pre-screens patients to assess their living situations, including stairs and other potential hazards, as well as their support systems at home.

Juan calls her one-on-one services “phenomenal.” He especially appreciated the in-person and video class Johnstone prepares that guides patients through every stage of spinal surgery, from pre-op to post. He watched the presentation four times until he wasn’t just prepared for his surgery, he was excited.

On June 28, 2022, Dr. Gibani performed a lateral interbody fusion, which gave him access to Juan’s spine through a “side” approach. “This often spares the large muscles of the back, allowing patients to have a faster recovery,” says the neurosurgeon.

Following his surgery, Juan was pain free for the first time in “years and years,” he says. “The results went beyond my expectations.” To further strengthen his back and legs, he took part in outpatient physical therapy at Casa Colina.

Juan is grateful to his wife and family for their support, as well as to everyone involved in his care at Casa Colina. He has become an unofficial ambassador for the facility, recommending it “as the place to go for anyone who wants a better quality of life for themselves.”

He looks forward to picking up his baseball glove and to camping with his three grandsons. He also wants to rejoin the workforce. Best of all, he feels invigorated.

“I tell my wife, ’67 is the new 18!’”