Vinita Taylor is happiest when she is sharing her love of cooking. From strolling the aisles of the grocery store for inspiration to adding the last sprig of parsley as garnish, she enjoys every step of the creative process.
Taylor’s food has been at the center of her family’s celebrations, and through her side business as a caterer, she fueled countless rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions and anniversaries.
“You cut the tomatoes and radishes just so,and you arrange the parsley and leaf lettuces just right on the trays,” she said. “It’s all about the presentation. If it looks good, people will love it.”
It seemed nothing could temper Taylor’s joy of cooking, until a cascade of health problems began in April 2016. A hairline fracture in her foot required her to wear a walking boot. Her altered stride led to severe back pain that left her stooped and unable to walk or stand for long stretches.
“The daughter of one of my good friends wanted me to cater his 80th birthday party,” she said.
“I just couldn’t do it. I stopped taking jobs because I was afraid I couldn’t do them.”
Taylor was diagnosed with a degenerative disc in her lower back. She had spinal fusion surgery in September 2017 in St. Louis. Unfortunately, the surgery made matters worse, as her pain persisted and started shooting down her right leg. Her surgeon kept telling her she was getting better, but she and her family suspected they weren’t getting straight answers.
“I was limited in terms of taking care of myself,” Taylor said. “I would have to have assistance at home as far as getting in and out of the shower. I couldn’t reach things up high. I couldn’t drive because my legs would get numb and I couldn’t completely feel the pedals.”
Taylor had to find a doctor with the skill, experience and access to innovative technology needed to fix her back. She also had to find a doctor she and her family could trust. She found both at MU Health Care’s Missouri Orthopaedic Institute.
When spine surgeon Ted Choma, MD, looked at Taylor’s X-ray, he immediately saw the problem. The fusion surgery had gone wrong. Her L5 vertebra —the lowest bone in the lumbar spine —was broken in half. It was bad news, a diagnosis that ultimately would require two more surgeries, but Choma’s approach gave Taylor confidence he could help her.
“His bedside manner, his explanation about what he’s doing,it made me feel at ease,” Taylor said. “When my family had questions, he didn’t hesitate. My family talks about him to this day. The fact he took the time to draw a diagram of what he was going to do and explained it to them, they were so impressed.”
In most cases, an experienced spine surgeon can use visual landmarks on the vertebra to know the spot and angle to insert screws into the bone without damaging the spinal cord or the nerves branching off it. But when a patient has had a major surgery that alters the natural anatomy, those landmarks are no longer reliable.
Prepared for these types of challenging surgeries, MU Health Care uses a device called an intraoperative CT scanner. For spine procedures, it allows surgeons to get real-time 3D scans of their patients so they can precisely implant screws to stabilize the bones.
“In an academic medical center, we take the hardest cases,” Choma said. “This is where the complicated stuff happens. You don’t need this technology to do straightforward spine cases, but this technology allows us to take care of these really complicated, risky cases with a new level of confidence and safety.There’s nothing else like it."
In a span of 13 months, Choma performed two surgeries to fuse Taylor’s L4, L5 and sacrum — the triangular bone at the base of the spine. The most recent surgery was in March 2019.
“I feel 100% different after this surgery,” she said. “I was up and walking much sooner. I can turn over and sleep on my side and not feel any pain. I can stand up. I can tap my foot on the floor and not feel any pain.”
Taylor, who recently retired, moved from the St. Louis area to Columbia along with her daughter, Heather Taylor, in December 2018. She is getting back into her cooking routine, including leisurely strolls in the supermarket.
“She’s my grocery store partner again, which is a bit of a gift and a curse,” Heather Taylor joked.
“I love to see her mobile, but she keeps me in there. I’m like, ‘Come on, Ma, it’s time to go.’ ”A month after her last surgery, Taylor felt well enough to cook for her family’s Easter celebration. She is far from done in the kitchen, but she is already planning a way to share her love of cooking with a younger generation.
“My goal,” she said, “is to make a cookbook of family recipes for my nieces and my daughter.”