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From Superman to Iron Man After Surgery

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Bobby and Tara Vinson

This story is part of an occasional series highlighting the #CedarsGratitude effort. Share why you are grateful for Cedars-Sinai here.

There are some things Bobby Vinson just won't do. He won't let his family down. He won't let his wife, Tara, train for marathons alone. And he won't complain or let his back problems interfere with the things he loves.

The people who know him best and love him most agree that his 28 years of life have been dedicated to making others happy, even when the condition he was born with sent pain through his body daily.

"He just never said anything,"  Tara said. "He hunted, fished, did anything any normal person would do — and you just couldn't tell how much he was hurting by his demeanor."

Bobby has Arnold Chiari malformation, a rare condition that causes the lobes at the base of the brain to elongate and block or slow the flow of fluid into the spine. This causes headaches, dizziness, and scoliosis — curvature of the spine.

In addition, he developed kyphosis, which caused a hunch in his back, and lordosis, sometimes called a swayback. It's a complicated trifecta of conditions that gave his back a distinct "S" curve, and no one in his home state of Montana had extensive experience treating all three.

He first had surgery for the condition when he was 15 years old to slow the progression of the diseases. By his 20s, the curvature in his back caused pain that made it hard for him to focus. The couple scoured the country looking for the right expert and settled on Robert Pashman, MD, at the Cedars-Sinai Spine Center.

To rid Bobby's back of the deformity, fix his pain and improve his quality of life, Pashman fused 13 of Bobby's vertebrae with 26 screws and two rods. After the 13-hour surgery, Pashman walked out to assure Tara and their family that everything had gone perfectly.

"He said my husband went from Superman to Iron Man," Tara said.

He spent a week at Cedars-Sinai recovering. The couple still remembers their caregivers by name, even more than a year later. The little touches made a big difference — helping Tara set up her cot with extra blankets, the night-shift nurse who would keep Tara company when she couldn't sleep, and the patience demonstrated by each staff member when the couple had many questions.

"We felt like we'd known our doctors and nurses for years," Bobby said. "Their humor and wit made the days pass quickly, and we never trusted anyone more in our entire lives. The nurses were amazing. Their compassionate care was unlike anything we'd ever seen."

A year after his intense surgery, Bobby now is cleared to do any physical activity he'd like, including his favorite: bow-hunting. He also can help with non-favorites like shoveling snow in the Montana winters and mowing the lawn in the summertime.

"You never really know how much you need your friends and family until you go through something like this," Bobby said.

"We've lived our lives thinking we were the loyal friends, colleagues and family members. But we're the lucky ones. We're really moved by all the generosity that's surrounded us in the last year. ‘Thank you' doesn't even begin to describe our feelings of gratitude."

Tara says the surgery and the care they received at Cedars-Sinai helped them both, and she couldn't be prouder of her husband. The couple started dating in high school. They have been together 12 years and married four. Now they're "parents" to their puppy Cooper.

"I wish I could say his demeanor and attitude have dramatically improved, but I can't because he's the most positive and kind person I've ever known, and that was before we ever made the trip down to L.A.," Tara said.

"Now he can smile for real, without the nagging pain in his back every day. His strength and courage in the face of two life-altering surgeries — followed by a yearlong recovery time — are so incredibly inspiring. I honestly believe Bobby could face any kind of hardship or difficult situation; he's just that person," she added.

Bobby is a grateful patient, and he and Tara are supporters of the Campaign for Cedars-Sinai. Learn more about the Campaign.

Are you a grateful patient, family member, volunteer or loyal supporter? We want to hear from you. Your story can inspire others who may be facing similar challenges — and most importantly, provide hope. Share your story of gratitude or see how others are sharing #CedarsGratitude.