man playing guitar with granddaughter

Back in the kitchen, thanks to spine surgery

June 18, 2019 | UCI Health
spine surgery patient talia ryan
“Cooking is something I love. When I was bedridden, I would research recipes. But I couldn’t make them because I could only stand for 15 minutes at a time," says Talia Ryan.

Talia Ryan began suffering searing back pain at age 15. Now 22, the Foothill Ranch resident and recent college graduate eventually was diagnosed with pars defect and spondylolisthesis, which involves a displaced vertebra in the spine.

After trying physical therapy, which didn’t resolve the pain, she found Dr. Nitin Bhatia, chief of UCI Health orthopaedic spine services and interim chair of the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Bhatia and his team performed an eight-hour surgery to fuse part of Ryan’s spine. Her pain disappeared. Subsequent bone growth and physical therapy has changed her life, enabling her to relish everyday experiences — even simply sitting at a table to eat.

Slipped vertabra triggers back pain

“When I was 15, I bent over one day and got this shooting pain down my leg. From then on, I always had a nagging backache.

“In fall 2016, I started classes at UC Irvine. I lasted one day. I couldn’t push through the pain anymore. It became excruciating.

“Finally I got an MRI, and it showed I had spondylolisthesis. I was so shocked. After the MRI, I found out my dad, grandmother, grandfather and an aunt had the same condition.

Avoiding back surgery

“I saw a spine surgeon who told me I needed surgery. But I knew what my aunt and grandma had gone through after surgery.

“I chose physical therapy instead. That was pretty much the only time I left the house for a year.

“It was really hard. I had to drop out of school. I had to quit my job. I saw all my friends graduating, studying abroad or going off to Europe — and I could hardly leave my house.

Finding a spine surgeon

“In October 2017, I decided I needed surgery. I interviewed two local surgeons. Then I went to UCI Health and saw Dr. Bhatia.

“He was so warm, and I could tell he felt compassion for my situation. He was so confident about the procedure he needed to do.

“The surgery went fine and after three months I was able to start physical therapy. Dr. Bhatia had told me I would feel terrible for a while, but that eventually I would turn a corner.

“That’s exactly what happened. After about six months I began feeling so much better. I’m now working five hours a day as an education assistant at a school.

Striving for a ‘normal’ life

“When I was in pain, physical therapists would ask me what my goals were. I told them I just want to be normal — to go to the store, do errands and cook.

Cooking is something I love. When I was bedridden, I would research recipes. But I couldn’t make them because I could only stand for 15 minutes at a time.

“Now I can shop and cook and sit down at the table and eat. Before, I had to eat lying down. I appreciate the little things in life so much more now.

“The other day I was out running errands and I got caught in the rain. I thought, ‘This is so amazing — just standing in the rain.’"

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