June 11, 2012 12:00 PM

>A CHILD STAR’S HEALTH CRISIS

Now a veterinarian, Danielle Spencer-Fields talks about growing up—and overcoming paralysis

Thirty-three years after having “the best experience” playing smart-aleck little sister Dee on the late-’70s sitcom What’s Happening!! Danielle Spencer-Fields is still recognizable to fans—just not to the patients she sees in her Saugus, Calif., office. After the show ended, the animal lover became a veterinarian. “It’s my dream job,” she says. But eight years ago, her life became a nightmare: A tingling in her legs turned into stabbing pain—which led to a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the nerves. Surgery to correct the condition (her doctors believe it may stem from a 1977 car accident) only made things worse. “I couldn’t feel anything below my waist,” she says. “I was paralyzed.”

When feeling returned months later, she was in excruciating pain; that led to a deep depression that had her contemplating suicide. Buoyed by her husband of 13 years, medical researcher Garry Fields, 50, she battled back mentally and physically, progressing from a wheelchair to a walker to a crutch. “I still have pain, but my life could be much worse,” says Spencer-Fields, 46, who is working again and developing a TV show that’s “like Dr. Oz with vets.” Her life lesson? “Bad things happen to everyone. It’s how you deal with them that tells what you’re made of.”

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