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Keeping up with fourth-graders thanks to spine surgery

April 06, 2023 | UCI Health
Talia Ryan is able to teach fourth graders in this classroom thanks to spine surgery at UCI Health.
“I went from being in constant pain and not being able to do daily tasks to being active all day with my fourth graders," Talia Ryan says of her new life after spine surgery.

Talia Ryan was 15 when she began experiencing excruciating back pain. Five years later, the young Foothill Ranch woman lasted barely one day as a student at UC Irvine in the fall of 2016 because the pain had become so debilitating.

“It was really hard," she says. "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.”

An MRI scan finally pinpointed the cause: a bone in Ryan's spine had slipped out of place and onto the vertabra below it, a condition called pars defect and spondylolisthesis. Armed with a diagnosis, she first tried to treat the problem without surgery, but with little success.

Soon, she was having such difficulty standing for long periods of time, she thought her dream of teaching elementary school was off the table.

“A physical therapist told me that I should consider a career change or work with high schoolers to avoid being on my feet all day,” recalls Ryan, who now lives in Atlanta, Ga.

Finding the right surgeon

A year later, after physical therapy and other nonsurgical treatments failed to resolve the pain, Ryan began interviewing surgeons to find one she could trust.

When she met with Dr. Nitin Bhatia, co-director of the UCI Health Comprehensive Spine Program and chair of the UCI School of Medicine's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, she felt an immediate rapport because he listened to her and understood her concerns.

“He was so warm and I could tell he felt compassion for my situation," she says. "He was so confident in the procedure he needed to do.”

That procedure was an 8-hour surgery to fuse part of Ryan’s spine.

Before her surgery in 2017, Bhatia cautioned that she would feel “terrible” for a while but would soon turn a corner. “That’s exactly what happened. After about six months I began feeling so much better.”

Seven months after surgery, Ryan became an instructional assistant at an elementary school. It was a difficult adjustment. At first, she could work just four hours at a time.

Gradually, she was able to manage six-hour shifts while working toward a master’s degree and a teaching certificate, determined to pursue the career she was warned she might never have.

Life after pain

In fall 2021, Ryan’s dream came true when she was hired to teach fourth graders in Atlanta.

Today, at 26, she still marvels at life after pain.

“I’m now finishing my second year of teaching and my life today couldn’t be more different than it was before surgery,” she says.

“I went from being in constant pain and not being able to do daily tasks to being active all day with my fourth graders — bending, sitting, standing, you name it!"

Ryan is also happy that she entrusted Bhatia to operate on her spine. “I’m especially grateful for his care and expertise along the way.”

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