If the name Danielle Spencer doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the name “Dee,” former adorable child star of ’70s classic TV show What’s Happening, is probably more familiar.
Spencer’s catchphrase on the show was, “Oooh, I’m gonna tell my momma!” She left showbiz to pursue her education at Tuskegee University where she completed a degree in veterinary science and became a veterinarian. The now-married 56-year-old Dr. Spencer couldn’t be happier.
“I knew I wanted to work with animals but I didn’t know in what capacity. But I always loved animals,” confesses Spencer. “They were my closest friends sometimes growing up.
I was so happy to be able to be a veterinarian because I wasn’t doing much acting once the show went off the air. It’s good being able to make a living doing something that I love.”
But her transition from entertainment to animal medicine wasn’t always a smooth one.
In 1977, Spencer was in a car accident that took the life of her stepfather. Symptoms of spinal cord injury showed up 26 years later, eventually leaving her near-paralysis for about eight months where she had to learn how to walk again.
Turns out a disc in her back from the 1977 accident had calcified through the decades and was pressing against her nerve. She was informed by her doctor that she would never walk again unless she has an operation to remove the disc.
She stayed out of the tapings for the show for 6 months and had to initially film several of her What’s Happening scenes sitting down.
Spencer had been suffering from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on nerves (doctors believe it could stem from a childhood car accident). Unable to move her legs after surgery to treat the condition, Spencer, then 46, fell into a deep depression as her numbness turned into unmanageable, chronic back pain.
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Bolstered by the support of her husband and her mom Cheryl Pelt, Spencer sought treatment at New Jersey’s Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, which had also treated Christopher Reeve. The veterinarian says the day she was accepted into the program, “the depression lifted.” She still has bouts with walking and at times has to use the assistance of a cane.