Actress Jennifer Gray took home the Mirrorball Trophy for attending Dancing With the Stars, but she also won something more significant — she credits the show with saving her life.
In Ireland, Gray and her then-boyfriend, actor Matthew Broderick, were involved in a two-car head-on collision in 1987, which killed the two women in the other car and left Broderick in hospital for months with a fractured femur and a collapsed lung. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article identified the women as Margaret Doherty, 67, and her daughter Ann Gallagher, 28.
Gray escaped the accident with what appeared to be minor injuries — “the only visual evidence of an injury was the small patch of skin on my chest, just below my neck, that had been burned off from seatbelt friction,” she writes in her memoir, Out of the Corner” from 2022.
She continues, “I was hurt in a way they couldn’t have fathomed at the time. I had soft tissue damage all over my body. I had suffered severe whiplash, which is what happens when the head is violently propelled in one direction and then flung in the opposite direction while the torso is being forcibly restrained by the seat belt.”
But that soft-tissue damage would hamper her for the next 20 years. Fast forward to 2009-2010, and Gray was reluctant to do “Dancing With the Stars” for a number of reasons, one of which was her chronic pain.
“Anyone who knew me knew that I regularly suffered from chronic neck pain and sometimes blinding headaches that lasted for days. Just [her then-husband Clark Gregg] knew that sometimes I would wake up without feeling my hands,” Gray writes in her chapter on Dancing With the Stars.
When she finally started considering going on the show, Gregg, at the urging of her good friend and fellow actor Marlee Matlin — Matlin took part in season six — insisted that she be evaluated by a doctor to appear on the show to be released, and that saved her life.
“The soft tissue that attaches my head to my body has been pummeled: stretched, strained and torn. Though I wouldn’t know for the next 22 years, eventually a ruptured ligament capsule would cause my head to fall forward and basically hang from my spine,” Gray writes of the lingering effects of the car accident.
Before agreeing to be on Dancing With the Stars, Gray went to see Dr. Robert Bray. She knew that dr. Bray “the first man on the moon to become a ballroom dancer,” Buzz Aldrin, who debuted in Season 10 of the show.
dr Bray was concerned about a nodule on her thyroid which she had been assured was benign so he said they would look into it. But then he told her she had “one of the worst necks I’ve ever seen.”
“If you’re dancing and you’re shaking up quite a bit, let alone driving and you get a butt, you’re permanently paralyzed from the neck down. You would be a rag doll,” Gray writes, describing her meeting with Dr. bray
When she asked if he said she couldn’t do “Dancing With the Stars,” he said, “No. In my opinion you shouldn’t even be in a car.”
But Bray assured her they could treat her and she could still attend the show without as much recovery time. He mentioned that he performed an “emergency microdiscectomy” on professional dancer Karina Smirnoff just 17 days before the start of the show’s season.
So Gray underwent surgery to put a metal plate and four screws in her neck, and the pain was better almost immediately. Then, on the advice of Dr. Bray removed part of her thyroid and later the pathology report came back saying it was cancerous.
“[It was] Capsular cancer, the kind that escapes biopsies well and can easily spread to other organs,” Gray writes.
So she underwent a third surgery to remove the remaining part of her thyroid and shortly after that she had a fourth surgery where Dr. Bray repaired the stenosis at two other levels in her neck. She figured that since she was already recovering from her other surgeries, she might as well have the fourth surgery done. This was all in late 2009 and early 2010, and she asked Dr. Bray on whether she’s fit enough to take part in Dancing With the Stars this fall.
He told her she could “probably last a few weeks” on the show. Gray would win the whole thing with her partner Derek Hough.
She then writes: “Marlee Matlin is a mystic. I hadn’t agreed to do the show yet and it had already changed my life. Shit, it might have even saved my life.”
In an interview with USA Today about her book, Gray addressed this whole experience, saying she was afraid to proceed with “Dancing With the Stars,” partly because she was afraid people would be “disappointed.” [she] wasn’t good enough or the girl from Dirty Dancing who couldn’t study fast enough,” but she’s so grateful she chose the show — for many reasons, not the least of which is that she it could well have died of thyroid cancer if it wasn’t for the show.
“Through that experience, I realized I had cancer and that I had had it for four and a half years, but the doctor who looked at my spine said not only should you not be in a car, you should consider yourself lucky that you are not paralyzed. Your head is hanging off your spine and that’s why you’ve been in pain for 20 years. The fact is, this reality show saved my life,” Gray said.
“If I hadn’t had a bad accident and injured my neck, they wouldn’t have found the thyroid mass,” she continued. “In a way, what I thought was maybe one of the worst things that happened to me, the accident saved my life.”
Out of the Corner is available now. Dancing With the Stars returns for Season 31 on Disney Plus in Fall 2022.
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