Mercy Medical Center brings spine surgeon to the area

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 17, 2012 

— Belinda Sabetta paid attention as Dr. Gabriel Garcia-Diaz pointed at an X-ray of her spine on a screen last week.

This was Sabetta's second visit with the spine surgeon in Merced. The 61-year-old Los Banos resident came in previously to be seen for back pain that's accompanied by leg pain when doing certain activities.

Sabetta has bad spinal discs, but other parts of her spine called facets might be the cause of her pain, Garcia-Diaz said. He first recommended a few activity modifications, and she will receive an injection treatment. She will have to be seen again after the injections.

"We try to go step by step," he said.

Garcia-Diaz, an independent physician, was recently recruited to the area by Mercy Medical Center for two primary reasons, said Dr. Robert Streeter, vice president of medical affairs for Mercy.

The hospital wanted to increase orthopedic surgery options in Merced, and officials were particularly interested in spine surgery skills, he said. "We don't have a spine surgeon in our community," he said.

Streeter, a family physician who has has practiced in the area for almost 20 years, said his patients with spine problems had to leave town to be seen. When a person has back problems, it can be painful to travel in a car, he said, even if it's just an hour north or south.

Streeter said Garcia-Diaz will make sure there's a full array of therapies available for patients. "He will coordinate the care with other physicians in the community who can augment the care he can provide," Streeter said.

Garcia-Diaz uses a comprehensive approach to treat his patients. He looks at the patient as a whole, not just their spinal problems, in order to get the right diagnosis. "You have to see the big picture in the patient," he said.

He looks at all the options patients might have, such as small practical activity modifications, physical therapy and injections, among others, before suggesting surgery.

"I don't talk (about) surgery in my first visit," he said.

If a patient's only option is surgery, Garcia-Diaz performs minimally invasive spine surgery, which is less painful, in part because it requires smaller incisions.

This kind of surgery results in a shorter hospital stay and quicker recovery, he said. "But you have to have the right diagnosis," he said.

Too painful to walk

Merced resident Fernando Garza, 37, had spine surgery on Aug. 31. A disc was pinching a nerve, he said, which probably resulted from heavy labor that he began to do when he was 13 in the fields during summers.

His back pain was so bad that he couldn't even walk, he said.

Garza was referred to Garcia-Diaz by his family physician and received two treatments before having surgery.

He said he was skeptical and scared of having surgery, but Garcia-Diaz gave him confidence because he seemed sure of what he was going to do. The surgery took about four hours, and he was out of the hospital the same day.

"(Garcia-Diaz) kind of gave me my social life back because I couldn't do anything. If it happens again, I would do it again," he said of a possible reoccurrence and future back surgery.

That was Garcia-Diaz's first surgery in Merced.

Bob McLaughlin, spokesman for Mercy, said hospital officials are glad to have Garcia-Diaz' expertise in the area. "We are learning," he said. "We want to make sure he has all the right equipment."

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or

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