Jenifer Lewis Tearfully Shares Recovery After 'Harrowing' 10-Foot Fall from a Balcony: 'How Is It I Didn't Die?' (Exclusive)

“I didn't want y'all to know I had fallen until I was able to show you how I got up,” the 67-year-old tells PEOPLE

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis; Leon Bennett/Getty</p> Jenifer Lewis

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis; Leon Bennett/Getty

Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis is grateful to be alive after recovering from an “unthinkable and harrowing” accident in November 2022.

The Black-ish star opened up to PEOPLE and recounted her near-death experience, when she fell 10 feet off a balcony while vacationing in Africa. Joined by her close friend Laurie Petok, the 67-year-old visited South Africa and Rwanda, calling it an "emotional trip of laughter and fun," before making her way to Tanzania for a luxurious stay in the Serengeti.

During her first night there, Lewis — who says she’s become more of an activist than an actress or author — recalls how dark it gets when the sun sets in the Serengeti.

Without having a tour of the property, she walked onto her deck to see the infinity pool when she suddenly fell into a dry ravine full of boulders and sharp rocks. There was a section of the deck that wasn’t closed off.

“It was not safe,” Lewis tells PEOPLE. “If you're on a deck, there should be no opening for you to fall, whether it's pitch black or pure sunshine. It was an unsafe deck. There was a dim light on the deck and had there been just a 10-ft. drop sign, a small caution sign…there was nothing.”

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis</p> Jenifer Lewis on her African getaway with her friend Laurie Petok

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis on her African getaway with her friend Laurie Petok

Related: Jenifer Lewis Says She Thought She Was Going to Die After Falling 10-Ft. Off a Balcony During African Getaway

“So I'm walking la-di-da and boom, I was on the ground. It was unbelievable because I didn't even know I was falling. I just went down like liquid,” she explains. “I am on the ground, everything hurts. I went to move and I couldn't move my body. I’m coughing in the dirt and I find enough air in my lungs to call out to Laurie.”

While lying on the ground waiting for Laurie to get medical help, Lewis says she had a few scary encounters with some wild animals — hearing a lion roar close by and seeing a Cape buffalo just feet away from her.

A Doctors Without Borders team ultimately came and she was airlifted to Kenya for treatment.

“As I laid in that helicopter, I was in and out of consciousness and all I could hear was my soul screaming, ‘Whatever this is Jenny, you'll come back. If you're breathing, you'll come back,’” she says.

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis</p> Jenifer Lewis after her 10-ft. fall

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis after her 10-ft. fall

Lewis was taken to Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi and treated by Dr. Parmenas Oroko, an orthopedic surgeon who “saved my life," she says.

“When I got to the emergency room, he was there in his mask and I saw his eyes. His eyes were so warm. They'd given me so much morphine for the pain but I could see the warmth in his eyes through those drugs. I knew I was in good hands,” she recalls, bursting into tears. “And he said to me, ‘Your body is broken and you need to be fixed.’ I looked into his eyes and said, ‘Please fix me.’ And he saved my life.”

Lewis was told that she fractured her acetabulum, the socket of the hip bone that holds the femur in place.

Dr. Oroko performed a nine hour surgery on the actress, replacing her acetabulum with titanium. She also had three blood transfusions and remained in the ICU for six days. After leaving the ICU, she remained hospitalized for 10 days.

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis</p> Jenifer Lewis in the hospital after her 10-ft. fall

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis in the hospital after her 10-ft. fall

Related: 'Black-ish' Grandma Jenifer Lewis Opens Up About Her Battle with Sex Addiction and Bipolar Disorder

“Really one of the worst parts is that I couldn’t laugh. I had been laughing so much on the trip but when this happened, I couldn't laugh anymore because it hurt to laugh. That was horrible for me. That's all I do.”

What kept her spirits up during this tough time was the kindness she received from not only hospital staff but from Oroko’s wife and the many children who would stop by her room.

“They treated me like I was a precious newborn. The way they handled me, they picked me up with such care. They were beautiful people,” she says, vowing to return to Kenya to personally thank them.

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis</p> Jenifer Lewis during her African getaway

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis during her African getaway

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After finally flying back to the United States, Lewis spent four days at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an evaluation before being transferred to the California Rehabilitation Institute for two weeks.

The following 10 months were then dedicated to making her come back with at-home physical therapy. Attributing her past as an athlete and dancer, Lewis says she was determined to make improvements with her health and get back to her active lifestyle.

“During my rehabilitation when the pain would consume me, I would say out loud, ‘It is just pain, Jenny. It's just pain and it'll pass. Keep going sweetie.’”

“All of my physical therapists, they couldn't even believe my attitude,” she continues. “They would say to me, ‘Give me three more, Jennifer.’ I said, ‘No, let me do 10 more. 20 more.’ It is what's inside of you that will heal you. If you want to sit down and feel sorry for yourself, you're not going to heal. It's the getting up.”

<p>Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis</p> Jenifer Lewis during physical therapy

Personal Images by Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis during physical therapy

Related: 'Black-ish' 's Jenifer Lewis Planning Nationwide Protest for Abortion Rights: 'Shut It Down!'

Lewis admits her recovery has been a tough one both physically and mentally. However, she’s “grateful to be alive” and feels as if she now has a new purpose.

“For the first five months I felt like I was the only person that had survived a plane crash,” she says. “It was like, oh my God, how is it that I didn't die? What do I do now? How do I earn being alive? I've got to do more for the world. I've got to make a difference.”

The star says an accident this severe left her “humbled,” and although she experiences some PTSD from the fall, she’s only able to share her story now for one reason.

“I didn't want y'all to know I had fallen until I was able to show you how I got up,” Lewis says. “I am not a 100% get back girl. I'm a 2000%.”

“I'm walking around with my chest held high and a big old smile on my face,” she tells PEOPLE. “I remember where I was 14 months ago and I even just burst out laughing sometimes like ‘Go on Jenny, go ahead baby. You did it.’ But it was work. I want to encourage people, take care of your bodies. Take care of yourself so you can get up if you fall.”

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