"What`s Happening!!" Star Danielle Spencer-Fields: Overcoming Chronic Back Pain
Danielle Spencer-Fields – known for her role as feisty Dee Thomas on the ‘70s sitcom "What’s Happening!" – was not alarmed when she noticed a tingling sensation in her foot eight years ago. She’d been on vacation in New York and assumed it was the result of "walking around a lot", something she was not accustomed to at home in Los Angeles.
She bought some new shoes and began treating the symptoms with ibuprofen, but the problem persisted. The tingling became numbness, and before long she was experiencing stabbing pains in both legs. It took a fall in a department store dressing room three months later for her to admit the problem wasn’t going away. She decided to see a doctor.
Doctors ran a battery of tests and discovered a cyst pinching Spencer-Field’s spinal cord. Because she hadn’t experienced any physical trauma in recent years, they surmised it was the result of a car accident she was in during the second production season of “What’s Happening!” The official diagnosis was spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine where nerves protrude from the spinal column. Surgeons operated on her back in hopes it would relieve pressure and prevent future complications. But she left less than happy with her experience.
“The hospital didn’t refer me to a physical therapist,” says Spencer-Fields. “They sent me home, and I was basically immobile, laying in my bed.” Her severe pain and overwhelming sense of isolation led to a deep depression, a complication made worse by what she says was inadequate physical rehabilitation. “[The hospital] thought it was best to have someone come to my house to do the physical therapy,” she says, a decision which led to a “fight with the insurance companies.” Though frustrating at the time, she now counts the experience as an important part of her education in spinal injury activism.
“I guess it made me my own advocate,” she says. “I learned how to speak up and do research [on my condition].” But knowledge was only half the battle; without her family’s support and guidance, she says her recovery would have been much more difficult.
Her husband, Garry Fields, and her mother, Cheryl Pelt, were instrumental in her decision to seek treatment at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey. Her mother suggested Spencer-Fields try Kessler, the facility that also treated Christopher Reeve. Fields worked two jobs to keep the family afloat financially while the veterinarian took time off work to train her body to move again. After a couple of weeks, she had made tremendous progress and the depression was ebbing. Though she still has lower back pain, and her mobility isn’t where she’d like it to be, she’s able to work and swim with little difficulty.
A practicing veterinarian since 1996, Spencer-Fields now passes down the lessons she’s learned to the owners of her patients at the animal hospital where she practiced before she was paralyzed. “Until you have procedures like I had,” she says, “you may not realize how painful they may be. My experience made me much more sensitive to animal pain. I always offer a pain-relief option to clients after I do a procedure, and the animals [and their owners] are happier for that.”
She has sound advice for those suffering from spinal cord injuries and chronic back pain as well: “Always have a copy of your medical records; that includes x-rays.” Just one of the takeaways from her book, “Through the Fire...Journal of a Child Star,” an honest account of a woman who tackled life and its many obstacles with the humor and tenacity of the character she made famous more than 30 years ago. For more on Danielle Spencer-Fields, follow her on Twitter at @Forrealdee.