A recipe for healthy living

Posted on 12 January 2012

"Life never lets go of you. We are destined to learn lessons until our dying day."


When much-loved food icon Ina Paarman was confronted with debilitating back pain, she wasn’t about to let it get her down. Thanks to a spinal fusion, she’s able to continue giving her energy to her culinary career.

Words Laura Twiggs Photographs Angie Lazaro

Well, you know, some people can make a whole career out of an operation,’ Ina Paarman says with an open yet slightly wry smile that comes as easily to her as good results from her foolproof recipes do. Sitting with a leg curled under her on a pale sofa in her gracious sitting room, dressed in jeans, sandals and a simple T-shirt, her aura (and immaculate pedicure) is unmistakable. Which is not to say she’s aloof or unapproachable… She’s a breath of fresh air. She’s candid, warm, funny and pithy, with a delightful turn of phrase. And, most surprisingly, she’s agile and graceful. One would never guess that just months ago this animated woman, who moves with such fluidity and ease, underwent what is recognised as one of the most painful and severe of all back operations – spinal fusion.

‘I suffered a lot of discomfort for about two years before the operation,’ Ina reveals. ‘I lived in constant pain and was very tired. I was on painkillers, but eventually they just weren’t enough. Living like this really does take all the joy out of life. It reached a point where I knew the operation was my only option. I put it off because I didn’t want to have unnecessary surgery, but eventually I had to face the devil. Denial was a luxury I simply couldn’t afford.’

The way Ina went about planning her operation speaks volumes about both her personality and the reason she’s been so successful in business. She left nothing to chance, conducting thorough research and snagging everything – right down to the finest detail – by scheduling the operation two months in advance. (Her son Graham, who manages the culinary empire, describes Ina the businesswoman as ‘determined, passionate and focused’, and Ina the mother as ‘caring, inspirational and very supportive’.) ‘You hear terrible stories about back operations, and you very seldom hear of someone having only one – people often have many subsequent operations and I didn’t want that to happen to me,’ Ina says. ‘I knew I had to find the very best person for the job, so I consulted four specialists before choosing my surgeon. I didn’t want a jockey with a fancy bedside manner; I wanted a solid technician who could think on his feet. And I knew my GP was important, too. No specialist is going to hold your hand after an operation: that’s up to you and your GP.’ In addition, Ina says her fantastic domestic and professional staff played a huge role, and she also employed a nursing practitioner to help her at home. ‘I literally spent two months organising everything before going into surgery,’ she says. ‘I booked well ahead very deliberately. I needed to make sure the house wasn’t going to fall down!’
And fall down, it certainly did not. Ina reports that she is feeling better and more energetic than ever. ‘I can even wear high heels again,’ she says with another trademark smile. The foundation of the Ina Paarman brand and of Ina’s life has always been an emphasis on healthy living and good nutrition based on established scientific principles and their rigorous application, which also contributed to the successful outcome of her back surgery. ‘I might not go to gym, but I walk in the garden every day. And, ever since I studied to be a home economist and worked as a dietician’s assist’ant at Middlesex Hospital in England, nutrition has been paramount to me. I saw too many drug addicts who lived on sweets and coffee, and it showed. My son Kevin also had allergies, so from very early on I had to find ways of cooking and preparing food without preservatives, MSG and excessive salt.’

In her business, ‘finding ways’ sometimes entails repeated tastings and scientific tests before the perfect recipe is found and a new Ina Paarman product reaches supermarket shelves. ‘There are many factors that need to be taken into account, such as the minimum nine-month shelf life that the products need to have, the effects of supermarket strip lighting on liquids, the separation and rancidity of oils, and so on,’ explains Ina. ‘One of our most popular products, the chocolate-cake mix, took 110 trials over one-and-a-half years to perfect. It’s hard work, which requires determination and dedication.’

No wonder, then, the enormous international success of these products. It’s this uncompromising ethos that has made Ina ‘the most famous name in South African cuisine’, according to well-respected South African PR guru Brian Berkman. The six-pupil cookery school she began in a converted garage back in 1982 with one domestic helper, one Defy-sponsored stove and a borrowed table has grown into the family-run business that employs more than 200 full-time staff today.

And, despite being older and wiser now, Ina has no intention of slowing down. ‘Life never lets go of you,’ she says. ‘We are destined to learn lessons until our dying day. The day you allow your world to become small is the day things start going wrong. As my GP says, man is a working animal. If you give up your interests and disengage from life you can expect to be dead within five years. The deterioration in looks and energy as one grows older isn’t nice, but mentally you can choose to stay in your thirties, forties or fifties. You can never stop forcing new challenges on yourself.’ And her back operation was just another one of these.

Ina has tried to slow down a little since her op, and spends what free time she has reading, travelling and watching movies, but work is never totally out of the picture. While travelling, for example, she’ll often spend a week at a good cooking school in another country, gleaning fresh ideas. ‘I’ve become very grateful for the hand I was dealt,’ she says. ‘I’ve been able to do what I’m good at and what I’m passionate about. I’ve also learned that every job you do prepares you for the next one. And I’ve learned how important it is to invest in a good orthopaedic office chair,’ she adds. ‘I’m so short. Most desks aren’t made for people like me, so now I have the right ergonomic equipment and a good foot stool, which really helps me in my work.’

Ina’s surgeon commented on her healing, saying he’d never seen such rapid recovery in someone of her age. To what does she owe this? ‘I believe you should be as fit and healthy and as positive as you can possibly be before surgery,’ she says, as she fluidly uncurls her leg from beneath her and gracefully stands up – literally, a living, walking testimony to her own philosophy.

Back pain facts
•  Back pain is the second-most common cause of pain, after headaches.
•  Four out of five adults will experience it in their lifetimes.
•  Back pain, which is mostly caused by minor injuries, slipped (or protruded) discs, facet-joint problems or arthritis, usually resolves spontaneously within six weeks.
•  Wait about a week before seeking medical attention, unless your back pain is a result of a fall or combined with bladder or bowel-control problems, in which case you should contact your doctor immediately.
•  Less than five percent of back-pain patients will need an operation.
•  Always seek a second opinion if back surgery is recommended.

Spinal-fusion surgery
Though there are many variations in the specific method, this surgical technique always involves placing a bone graft or a bone substitute between two or more of the vertebrae to obtain a solid union. The bone is either harvested from another bone in the patient’s body, or from a bone bank. The former, known as an autograft, is regarded as the ‘gold standard’ as it has a long history with predictable healing results. While the latter, or allograft, is associated with less predictable results, it’s less painful because it doesn’t involve a separate incision to harvest the patient’s own bone for grafting. During surgery the spine is usually approached from the back, but it can also be approached from the front or via a combination of both. Fusion is sometimes performed with minimally invasive surgery, but the risks remain the same as in traditional, large-incision surgery.
Once the bone graft is in place, it takes a few months for the body to heal. The vertebrae ‘weld’ together in the same way that a fracture heals. Supplemental hardware (plates, screws and cages) may also be used as internal splints that hold the vertebrae together while ‘welding’, or fusion, occurs.

The post-operative pain of spinal fusion is usually higher than in other back surgeries, although excellent pain-management medication is available. The recovery period also tends to be longer, usually entailing three to four days of hospitalisation, followed by several months of rest before you can resume a normal, active lifestyle.

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