Gloria Gaynor is free at last from the chronic pain that gripped her spine for decades — but getting there took a high-risk, two-part surgery last year.
“I thought I was going to die,” the singer, 75, tells PEOPLE of landing in the ICU after part one of the surgery in January 2018.
Her life was in the hands of Dr. Hooman M. Melamed, a board-certified spine surgeon in Los Angeles.
“I had to perform one of the most difficult surgeries [involving] breaking her spine then reconstructing it,” says Dr. Melamed. “This procedure is [rare] because it is so complex and requires a great deal of precision.”
The disco legend’s nightmare began in 1978 at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. Performing “tug-of-war” choreography with her dancers, Gaynor — whose new gospel album Testimony debuts on Friday — fell over a monitor on stage.
“The next morning, I woke up paralyzed from the waist down,” she says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “I called my boyfriend and said, ‘Please come — I can’t move my legs.’ ”
Gaynor can joke about it now. “First I was afraid. I was petrified,” she says with a smirk, quoting lyrics from her iconic hit “I Will Survive.” But her body — and her life — would never be the same. Over the next four decades, Gaynor found herself going in and out of the operating room to combat what she calls the “domino effect” of issues stemming from the accident.
First, there was the 1978 surgery to remove a ruptured disc and fuse two of the vertebrae in her lower spine, a procedure that helped her walk again. Amid the ordeal, Gaynor says employees at her record label declared “the queen is dead,” but later that year she made a swinging comeback with “I Will Survive,” which she recorded in a back brace.
“I’ve always believed that God said to the writers, ‘Sit down, write this song and just hold onto it. I’m going to send you somebody,'” she says, “and he sent me.”
The hit topped charts across the globe and made way for nine albums in the next 15 years, but Gaynor would need to go under the knife again in 1997. To correct the spinal stenosis caused by her initial surgery, doctors inserted two rods to stabilize the area.
“But it made my back flat, which made me lean forward,” says Gaynor, who managed her pain with periodic epidurals and prescribed pain and anti-inflammatory medications through the years. “There were times when I had to sleep in a chair because I just couldn’t sleep lying down.”
The pain became too much during a shopping trip in New York City in the fall of 2017, when Gaynor struggled to make it a few doors down to a restaurant.
“By the time I got there, I was in excruciating pain,” she says. “I couldn’t have taken another step.” Gaynor was fired up: “This is it,” she remembers saying. “I can’t live like this.”
That’s when she turned to Dr. Melamed. “He said, ‘You need a lot more than what they’ve been doing for you — it’s going to be extensive,'” says Gaynor, who soon found herself in Dr. Melamed’s operating room.
“He told us that I took five years off his life, because they really thought they might lose me,” Gaynor says of the first part of the surgery.
Even though her high vitals caused alarm, Dr. Melamed was able to proceed with the second part five days later. It took just one day after that for Gaynor to realize the surgery was a success.
“I was walking bent over for 20 years,” she says. “Right after the surgery when they got me up and I was walking up straight for the first time . . . it was incredible!”
Prior to the surgery, Gaynor knew paralysis might become her reality — “I thought, I’ve seen people perform in wheelchairs, I could do that,” she says — but today she’s “absolutely pain-free,” regularly practices Pilates with an instructor, and plans to dance in heels on tour this summer.
“I [recently] went to a wedding and actually danced,” she gushes. “People were on the floor trying to copy my moves.”
Throughout all her highs and lows, Gaynor says her deep faith guided her: “I prayed that God would use the doctor’s hands as his hands, and I have no doubt that he did.”
For more about Gloria Gaynor’s triumph, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.