"I lost a lot of weight and strength, 15 lbs. in total from DWTS and bed rest," Jeannie Mai tells PEOPLE

By Natalie Stone
November 24, 2020 03:00 PM
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Jeannie Mai is giving thanks for her health after undergoing emergency surgery following a "near life-threatening" diagnosis.

Three weeks ago, The Real co-host was forced to withdraw from competing on Dancing with the Stars after she was diagnosed with epiglottitis and suffered from a parapharyngeal abscess.

After Mai, 41, says she was "misdiagnosed" by two doctors, she was referred to Dr. Shawn Nasseri, who she says assessed her the day before she was set to compete on DWTS and discovered the "huge abscess that was growing" in her throat. "My sore throat turned out to be strep throat that quickly turned into a parapharyngeal abscess," Mai explains to PEOPLE for this week's issue. "I was breathing like Darth Vader. It was a traumatic experience."

"Within minutes" of her appointment with Dr. Nasseri, Mai was "rushed to the ER" to begin the procedure and told she could no longer compete on the ABC reality dance competition series.

"I was devastated, mortified, upset, I was in tears and I actually fought the doctor to say, ‘Can I just at least compete in this week’s competition?’ because I worked so hard on my Charleston, which was our next dance together with [pro partner] Brandon [Armstrong],' " she recalls.

Jeannie Mai

"I thought maybe I can do the surgery on a Tuesday, take a week to heal, watch the routines virtually and figure it out. But he said, 'Absolutely not.' Because any form of respiratory work — like walking fast, getting excited, laughing — causes the blood pressure to swell in your throat, because that's one of your main pipelines for breathing, and that alone could even erupt or swell them closed more," she explains.

Following a successful surgery, Mai had to rest and "stay quiet for two weeks."

Jeannie Mai

But resting proved to be the most difficult part of her recovery.

"The alarming thing is, I still couldn't breathe afterwards," Mai says. "It was even worse because now — because of extreme surgery, where he had removed my tonsils and also completely cut open the abscess in my throat in order to funnel the liquid out — my throat is swollen. I couldn't eat anything for two weeks, so I was tube feeding there in the hospital for a week, and I had a nurse come in every two hours just to make sure I was breathing."

"Having to be on extreme critical care watch was really scary. That was another scary part, when you realize how fragile you are coming out of surgery even though everything was removed," she adds. "After I left the hospital, for a week being at home, I still had to be on an IV and I could not move, because anything you do that raises your blood pressure causes your throat to tighten up."

Jeannie Mai and Jeezy in the hospital
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"I’m not going to lie, I don’t know which I was more upset about: having to withdraw from the competition, [or] having to be off my favorite show [The Real] for two, now maybe three weeks," says Mai, who returned to hosting the daytime talk show on Tuesday.

Ultimately, though, "the hardest part of recovery was going to sleep because when I go to sleep, if you breathe wrong, you get into a coughing fit and it hurt like crazy and it would bleed," says Mai. "So sleeping was difficult because you can’t really go into a slumber where you would snore — you couldn’t sleep very heavy."

She was also limited in what she could eat during her recovery period, including no solids or hot foods.

"Eating foods, I didn’t eat any hot foods for two weeks. You could actually do really big damage," says Mai. "So I ate a lot of cold soups and a lot of juices."

Due to her constricted diet, Mai dropped 10 lbs. from consuming only liquids. "The other thing mentally is I got kind of depressed because I lost about 10 lbs. from just eating liquids, so I am really frail right now. Really, really frail," says Mai, who feels "really tired because I’m so underweight and malnourished."

"I lost a lot of weight and strength, 15 lbs. in total from DWTS and bed rest," says the star, who "can't wait to get back into the gym to gain back my body and health to conquer my dreams again."

Brandon Armstrong and Jeannie Mai on DWTS
| Credit: Eric McCandless /ABC via Getty Images

Now, Mai is now "96 percent better, where I can speak. I can’t yell, but I can speak."

The TV host is also "able to eat solid foods again" and is "incorporating back starches and meat and things that I can chew. I can’t chew solid, solid foods. I can’t have like bread, or nothing like crackers, but I can eat maybe like porridge or maybe [a] matzo ball."

Although her time on DWTS came to an unexpected end, Mai — who was in the ballroom on Monday's live season 29 finale — is grateful to be alive and for the support she's received from her loved ones and fans, including her fiancé, rapper Jeezy.

Jeannie Mai

"Dr. Nasseri definitely gets the points for diagnosing me correctly to urge me into the ER, but Jeezy gets 100 percent of the credit for actually forcing me to go," she says.

Adds Mai: "I am very thankful to be alive, of course, and I’m thankful to have learned that you really cannot take your health for granted."

The Real airs weekdays (check local listings).