Nathan Congleton/TODAY Al Smoker
On Friday, Jan. 6, Al Roker went to work, striding through the doors of NBC News’ Studio 1A in New York City’s Rockefeller Center at the crack of dawn with his trademark vim and vigor.
But this was no ordinary work day.
It was the first time Roker, 68, had returned to the Today show after a two-month hiatus that left him hospitalized twice for up to two weeks at a time – and close to dying.
“I’m blessed to be alive,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively.
Off set and on air, Roker was greeted with cheers, too many hugs to count, and even tears.
“When Al was gone, you knew there was this huge gaping hole,” co-anchor Hoda Kotb tells PEOPLE. “We love him.”
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“We missed him so much,” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie says.
Their ever-ebullient colleague Roker — known for cracking jokes on air and behind the scenes and making his co-workers laugh — missed his Today show family as well.
“It’s good to be back,” he says.
Roker’s health issues started in early November when he woke up in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains.
He went to see his internist who ran scans that showed he had blood clots in his lungs.
Nathan Congleton/TODAY Carson Daly, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, and Hoda Kotb
“I was more scared about the blood clots than anything else,” says Roker, who went straight to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, where he was admitted on Nov. 11.
For more details from PEOPLE’s exclusive interview with Al Roker, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday
Doctors were treating the blood clots with anticoagulants when they discovered he was bleeding internally.
That meant they had to temper the use of the blood thinners they were giving him while they tried to figure out what was causing the bleeding.
When his issues “seemed to have settled down,” he and his wife of 27 years, ABC News’ senior national-affairs correspondent and contributing anchor for 20/20 Deborah Roberts, asked if he could go home for Thanksgiving.
Deemed to be “clinically stable,” doctors said he could return home “with extremely close follow-up the day after discharge to ensure he was stable,” says his gastroenterologist Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman, Director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Though Roker missed his first Macy’s Day Parade in 27 years, he was able to spend the day with his wife and children.
Closely following doctor’s orders, Roker went back to his internist the next morning. The doctor checked his bloodwork, observed stable vital signs and let him go back home, Schnoll-Sussman says.
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But later that day, Roker started feeling faint and was rushed back to the hospital, showing new signs of bleeding, says Schnoll-Sussman.
By this point he had undergone countless tests, CT scans and MRIs to find the source of the bleeding, but doctors were still unsure of the cause. His medical team decided to perform surgery to “definitively identify the bleeding source,” she says.
Al Roker/instagram Deborah Roberts and Al Roker
It turned out that the bleeding was due to a perforation in his duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. During a nearly 7-hour surgery, his medical team repaired it, resectioned part of his colon and removed his gallbladder.
One reason Roker’s issues were so hard to diagnose is because anatomical changes from a previous gastric bypass surgery made it difficult for doctors to see what was going on inside his abdomen, says Schnoll-Sussman.
Throughout the order, there were times when Roberts wasn’t sure her husband of 27 years was going to make it, which was terrifying.
“Al’s surgeon used the word ‘catastrophic’,” Roberts recalls. “That was the clearest declaration of what we were up against.”
Calling Roker’s experience “life-threatening,” Schnoll-Sussman says “there were multiple times when things were quite serious.”
But, she adds, “he’s a fighter.”
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Roberts said her husband remained positive during the harrowing experience.
“Here’s the beauty of it,” he says. “For the most part, I have no idea what happened.
“It’s Deborah’s narrative in a way, because I was laying in bed. And it’s like, ‘Okay, yeah, take some more blood. Yeah, give me a scan, whatever you got.’ But Deborah was that rock and would liaison with the doctors.”
Roker appreciates all the support he has received from family and friends, including former NBC News colleagues Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, as well as from CBS News’ Gayle King and ABC News Robin Roberts.
At the end of the day, he says, “We’re all just people. And at moments like this, everybody pulls together.”