When Jeannie Mai makes a commitment, she sticks to it.
"I am not a quitter," The Real co-host tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "That is not me."
So when Mai, 41, was told that she would have to withdraw from Dancing with the Stars after being diagnosed with epiglottis due to a parapharyngeal abscess, she was "devastated."
On Sunday, Nov. 1, Mai's journey on the ABC dance competition series came to a sudden halt. While juggling her busy schedule — including rehearsing for DWTS, shooting The Real, working on her YouTube channel and recording her Listen Hunnay podcast — Mai was battling strep throat.
"I got some steroid shots and continued on with that same chaotic schedule," recalls Mai, who says she visited two doctors that both "misdiagnosed me and kept me on steroids, which allowed me to keep going with my taxing schedule."
During what would turn out to be her final day of rehearsal with pro partner Brandon Armstrong, Mai says she couldn't breathe. "I left rehearsals early because … I couldn't breathe. I was wearing my mask, so sometimes [when] I couldn't breathe, I thought it was the mask, but it was really my throat cavity closing."
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That night, "the steroids were wearing off. I went to bed and I woke up … trying to gasp for air," says Mai, who told her fiancé, rapper Jeezy, that she needed to "get outside" immediately.
"So I got up out of bed, I walked out to get some fresh air, and I just could not take in an actual breath," she says. "Every one inhale took like, three to four gasps to get the air in."
In an attempt to alleviate the swelling, Mai tried to take Advil, but the pill "would not go down my throat. That's how closed up it was."
"Thankfully," Mai was referred to Dr. Shawn Nasseri, whom she says assessed her the day before she was set to compete and discovered the "huge abscess that was growing" in her throat. "'Pack your bags up, call Dancing with the Stars, let them know you're not competing tomorrow,'" she remembers him telling her. "'You're going into the ER. I have to operate on you.'"
"My sore throat turned out to be strep throat that quickly turned into a parapharyngeal abscess," explains Mai, who was diagnosed with epiglottitis. "I was breathing like Darth Vader. It was a traumatic experience."
"Within minutes" of her appointment, Mai was "rushed to the ER." After being told that she couldn't compete the following evening, she says she "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?'" she says. "Because I worked so hard on my Charleston, which was our next dance together with Brandon."
"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.
Thankfully, the procedure was a success — but she wasn't completely in the clear. Following the emergency surgery, Mai was on "on extreme critical care watch" for a week in the hospital.
"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."
Now, Mai says she is "96 percent better." "I can speak. I can't yell, but I can speak," she says. "I'm so thankful, so I'm definitely coming out into the clear now." She's also able to eat solid foods again and is incorporating more items that she can chew back into her diet.
Helping care for Mai in the recovery process was her mom — "Mama Mai was my nurse at home, so I appreciated the entertainment she brought me," she says — and Jeezy, 43, whom she thanks for pushing her to go to the hospital.
"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. "I promise you I would've been dancing that Monday night."
She's also grateful for the unwavering support and "outpouring of love from friends and everyone I have worked with." "From phone calls, to messages, flowers to even soups, I was quickly on the mend because of the encouragement from wonderful people in my life," she says. "I am so grateful."
"I have to thank The Real for being so understanding the entire step of the way," continues Mai, who will return to her co-hosting duties on Tuesday. "The Real truly is my family and they were just so encouraging and held it down for me for our daily talk show that made me feel so warmed and loved every day that I watched the ladies."
Though she wasn't able to continue her journey on DWTS, Mai — who will be in the ballroom on Monday's live season 29 finale — is thankful that the show "put my health first."
"It's really rare to see in television or in work, where people genuinely care about you," she says. "But I can definitely say with DWTS and The Real, these people genuinely cared about my wellbeing and took care of me and supported me throughout my entire process of healing."
Most of all, despite the "near life-threatening" diagnosis and her time on DWTS coming to an unexpected end, Mai says she's "very thankful to be alive."
"And I'm thankful to have learned that you really cannot take your health for granted," she adds.
The Real airs weekdays (check local listings).
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