Ten years ago, if you'd told Patricia Vermillion that she'd be painting murals and traveling around France at the age of 68, she'd have said it was impossible.
The Brownsville resident began experiencing back pain related to osteoarthritis and mild scoliosis when she was in her 50s. Vermillion's pain grew more severe over the years, due to a narrowing of her spinal canal (lumbar spinal stenosis) and a vertebra that had slipped out of place (spondylolisthesis). In addition to the back pain, the pinched nerves in her spine caused numbness and weakness in her legs.
Once a very active woman, the pain began to affect her ability to walk and drive, forcing her to spend more time at home. "I was really in a lot of pain," Vermillion says. "I spent a lot of time sitting around the house, which was really taking a toll on me."
When non-surgical treatments no longer controlled her pain adequately, she had surgery in 2005 to put pins, screws and rods in her spine to relieve the pain. Vermillion experienced some relief, but required a second minor surgery a couple years later to repair a disc that had been damaged from the weight of the hardware in her spine. A few years later, severe knee arthritis necessitated two total knee replacements.
Throughout her back and knee pain, her physical therapist was an integral part of her care team. He worked with her regularly on exercises to strengthen her muscles, improve joint mobility and reduce joint pain and stiffness.
When her back pain returned, Vermillion knew it was time consider another surgery. Her biggest motivation for having surgery was her plan to take a two-week trip to France with her art group, the Foothill Art Society. The avid painter knew the trip would involve a great deal of walking, something that had become nearly impossible for her.
Vermillion sought recommendations on spine surgeons from her trusted physical therapist. Her physical therapist recommended Tyler Smith, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon with Sutter Surgical Hospital North Valley in Yuba City. "When I had my first appointment with Dr. Smith, I told him about the trip to France I was planning," Vermillion says. "He said, 'Well, we better get you in right away then!'"
Vermillion says Dr. Smith immediately made her feel at ease about the surgery. "He's a friendly, upbeat guy who is easy to talk to. He really listened to me and made me feel very comfortable about the procedure."
With big travel plans on the horizon, Vermillion wanted to ensure her body was well prepared to handle the surgery so that she would be able to recover quickly. She worked with her physical therapist for six months prior to surgery, working on upper body strength and conditioning.
In March 2014, exactly one year before her trip to France, Vermillion had surgery at Sutter Surgical Hospital North Valley. Unlike the first spine surgery, which involved one very long incision, Dr. Smith performed a minimally invasive surgery, making just three small incisions. During the procedure, Dr. Smith replaced the old screws in Vermillion's spine with three lighter screws and angled them differently. He also removed some bone to relieve pressure on the nerves in her spine.
Following the roughly five-hour surgery, Vermillion spent two nights recovering in the hospital. "I felt like I was at a resort. I had a beautiful private room. My husband could have stayed with me, but he had to go home each evening to be with our dogs," she says. "The nurses were so responsive and the chef even stopped by and asked me what I'd like from the menu."
Vermillion made a swift recovery, going off of her pain medication within two weeks. She had to wait six weeks before resuming exercise, but she did a lot of walking during that time.
"My recovery was really not bad at all," she says. "It was about half the time of my first spine surgery."
After six weeks, Vermillion resumed working with her physical therapist. They worked on proper bending and lifting techniques to protect her back, as well as strength training and conditioning. She continues to maintain her fitness through Sutter Physical Therapy's independent exercise program.
One year later, Vermillion boarded a plane for France with her art group. They spent 10 days in Normandy visiting restaurants, shops and flea markets. Vermillion and her travel companions spent the final leg of their trip in Paris, including a full day at the Louvre Museum. She handled the extensive walking with no problem. "The trip was just amazing," Vermillion says. "I still have some residual weakness in my left leg, so on longer walks, I use a cane. Otherwise, I can get around just fine."
Vermillion hasn't slowed down since returning from France. She recently completed a mural on the side of a beauty salon in downtown Yuba City. Shortly after completing the project, a local resident saw her work and hired her to paint a mural in her young daughter's bedroom.
"I definitely wouldn't have considered taking on these mural projects before my surgery with Dr. Smith," Vermillion says. "I couldn't even stand for an extended period of time. I have a deep appreciation for the things people take for granted, like walking and standing. I'm so pleased with the result of my surgery."