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Suffering from a ruptured brain aneurysm was the furthest thing from Rachele Dodard’s mind while driving home three years ago. Yet, that’s just what happened to the vibrant 34-year-old Miami resident. Dodard’s doctors warned her that weight loss was imperative if she wanted to remain in the land of the living. Read on to find out how a determined Dodard dropped 20 dress sizes without going under the knife, why she avoided the gym when trying to shed excess pounds, and how losing weight surprisingly encouraged her to cook (and eat more).

ESSENCE.COM: So tell me about this aneurysm. That experience must have been scary!
I was driving home in my car about three years ago and out of nowhere I had the worst headache ever. I thought that something had hit me from outside of the car. There was a sharp pain in the back of my head. I realized I hadn’t been shot because I wasn’t bleeding. I immediately called my parents because my father is a doctor. Turned out that I had a brain aneurysm while I was driving and was hemorrhaging while I was on the phone with them. I had emergency brain surgery the next day. The doctors said the best thing that I could do was lose weight. The doctors suggested I get gastric bypass surgery.

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ESSENCE.COM: So that’s when your weight loss process began?
At that point I was desperate to lose weight but I refused to have another surgery. I tried for 6 months and I lost 7 pounds. I was very weak and tired. I eventually learned I was a borderline diabetic. I Googled weight loss programs and found Medifast. Within three weeks of me starting the program, I lost 22 pounds.

ESSENCE.COM: How did your eating and overall lifestyle habits change?
I eat a lot more protein. I make sure that I don’t have more than one serving of carbs per meal. Portion control is big because I eat everything. But, if there is an option to have brown rice as opposed to white, I will have the brown. This weight loss brought back my love of cooking. When you’re heavy you don’t really want to be known as the big girl who loves to cook. Now I bake my own breads, make my own salad dressing. Exercising used to be a chore. Now I do yoga about three times a week. I also ride on a trikke – a cross between a scooter, roller blades and a bike. You stand on it and move the handle bars; it’s so much fun! I used to avoid the gym; I didn’t want to be around all the skinny girls. I kept alternating my regimen; I keep it varied. Boredom is terrible in your diet and your exercise regime.

ESSENCE.COM: What about snacks? Did you start eating baby carrots?
Oh, no, that doesn’t sound fun at all! (Laughs.) For snacks I like to make my own trail mix. I mix dark chocolate chips, a high-protein cereal, almonds, sesame seeds and chopped dried fruits. I can keep it in my purse. I was never a carrot stick, rice cake kind of girl. I learned to make crepes in substitution of pancakes. Instead of whole eggs I use egg whites. Sometimes I use all fruit instead of sugar as a sweetener. I like Italian food so I learned to make pasta. I now eat about six times a day. It’s all about portion control.

ESSENCE.COM: What other lifestyle changes have you acquired since you dropped this weight?
Well, now I drink more water. I started going to sleep earlier. I used to be one of those people who said, Oh, I’m good on four hours of sleep, and then have six cups of coffee the next day to compensate. I’m more honest about who I am. I always thought of myself as a healthy size 12 even though I was wearing a 24. In my head, I was a healthy chubby person.