After she was paralyzed eight years ago, child star turned veterinarian Danielle Spencer-Fields – who played bratty little sister Dee on the late-'70s sitcom What's Happening!! – feared she might never walk again.
Spencer-Fields 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-Fields, 46, fell into a deep depression as her numbness turned into unmanageable, chronic back pain.
Bolstered by the support of her husband Garry Fields and her mom Cheryl Pelt, Spencer-Fields 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."
Then the real work began. With her veterinary career temporarily on hold, Spencer-Fields turned rehab into a full-time job. After just two weeks at Kessler, she could use a walker to move 150 feet. "My attitude started changing – I started feeling grateful to be alive," she says.
Now back to work at the Saugus, Calif., animal hospital where she practiced before she battled paralysis, Spencer-Fields says her four-legged patients are benefitting from her health crisis.
"It has completely changed the way I practice," she says. "Before, I focused on keeping them pain-free. Now I try to find the source of what's going on instead of just treating the symptoms."
Spencer-Fields, who has several dogs and cats of her own, also used her experience to educate her patients' owners. "We always like our dogs to be jumping on their back legs, like when we give them a treat. Or when they have to jump off the bed, that also puts pressure on the spinal cord," says the veterinarian, who is also developing a TV show she says is "like Dr. Oz with vets."
She now gives clients helpful advice. "Maybe you want to install some stair steps so your dog can walk down," she suggests. "You don't want to be in here treating back problems because they are extremely painful for these animals. My condition has completely opened my eyes."
For more on Spencer-Fields's health crisis and veterinary career, pick up this week's issue on PEOPLE, on newsstands now.