A New Spine and a New Life

"My mantra is ‘determined, dedicated and disciplined,’ ” says Diane Robinson, 78, quoting her role model, octogenarian bodybuilder Ernestine Shepherd. As one of the first woman officers to join a South Bay police force, Robinson needed all of those qualities in her 37-year career. And even more so to overcome an on-the-job injury that had repercussions on her health for decades.

Robinson’s physical problems began in 1980 with the hot pursuit of a drug suspect. She was riding solo in her patrol car when the suspect steered his vehicle down an alley. “I had radioed for backup,” says Robinson, so she went around the block to keep the driver in sight as he exited the alley. Instead, “he hit my patrol car on the driver’s side,” she says. “It knocked me out. The paramedics had to use the Jaws of Life to get to me. I had injuries to my whole left side.”

The Palos Verdes Peninsula resident spent 30 days on leave recovering, but a torn rotator cuff and back muscle and spine damage went undetected. Finally, in 1999, she had surgery to repair the rotator cuff, but the pain running down her leg from the back injuries worsened as scarred muscles began to pull her spine out of alignment. The weighty equipment belt that she wore as an officer contributed to the intensifying pain, Robinson says. In 2008, at age 63, she retired from the force as a sergeant.

CHANGING THE PROGNOSIS

Despite increasing disability, Robinson stayed extremely active in retirement, earning a doctorate in public administration from the University of La Verne, authoring The Unique Triple A Safety Handbook and doing a variety of volunteer work. It was in 2017, while she was at a volunteer job, that her left leg suddenly gave way. “It was this horrible pain like electricity running down my leg,” she recalls. She was rushed to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center.

By this time, scoliosis caused by her old injuries had pushed her ribs forward, making it hard to breathe, and had shrunk her from her adult height of five feet six inches down to five feet four. An exam showed that in addition to the severe scoliosis, Robinson had several herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, arthritis in her spine and osteoporosis. She feared she would eventually lose the ability to walk, since she already required a cane.

Remi Ajiboye, MDBut Robinson, true to her motto, was determined not to let this be how her story ended. After a long journey through physical therapy, a type of deep-tissue massage known as myofascial release and chiropractic treatments, she found Remi Ajiboye, MD, a Providence Little Company of Mary orthopedic surgeon who specializes in spinal surgery, especially minimally invasive spine surgery and spinal reconstruction. “We just clicked,” Robinson says. “He understood.”

Her surgery with Dr. Ajiboye was performed in April 2020 and lasted nine hours. It involved fusing Robinson’s entire spine, from the base of the neck to the top of the sacrum.

“It’s a very complex spinal reconstruction that involves a lot of screws and rods and titanium spacers,” says Dr. Ajiboye. “It requires meticulous planning, and not all surgeons do it—you have to have the right surgeon with the technical expertise, the right surgical team and the right facility to perform the surgery safely.”

In this case, the Providence Little Company of Mary team included more than a dozen people, from Dr. Ajiboye’s physician assistant to the nurses, surgical techs, X-ray techs and anesthesiologists. “I’m pleased with how this worked out,” the doctor says, adding that he gives Robinson a lot of credit for her positive attitude. “Her goal was to get back to being active. She’s a very inspiring person. She inspires me.”

DEDICATED AND DISCIPLINED

Today, Robinson is back to doing yoga and working with trainer Joe Gagner at the DL Training Facility two or three times a week, pursuing her dream of competing in a bodybuilding event later this year. She serves on her Community Emergency Response Team and works as a life coach to fulfill her goal of being a role model for others the way Shepherd, at age 87, still is for her. And she practices a series of affirmations that focus on healing different parts of the body, including the lower back: “I trust the process of life. All I need is taken care of. I am safe.”

She also begins each day with a focus on giving thanks. “I give gratitude for Dr. Ajiboye, the universe, God and love,” she says.

For more information on Providence Little Company of Mary hospitals, call 844-925-0942.

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