As a young girl, Padma Lakshmi suffered from undiagnosed endometriosis so severe, she tells PEOPLE, "I had to stay home several days a month from school. I missed a week of my life for 23 years."
TheTop Chefhost, 44, reveals her symptoms included bloating, cramping, excessive bleeding and severe abdominal pain — but it was something no one really spoke about.
"It's embarrassing," she admits. "It's something that is deeply private and personal."
It wasn't until she was 36 that Dr. Tamer Seckin identified her symptoms as endometriosis — which occurs when the uterine lining cannot be expelled with a woman's period and grows outside the uterus — and performed surgery to remove the excess tissue. From there, Lakshmi partnered with Dr. Seckin to found the Endometriosis Foundation of America.
"I wanted to raise awareness so that no young girl has to wonder what is wrong with her like I did for so many years," she says. That's why the EFA — thanks to the support of New York State Senator Jeff Klein— recently launched the The ENPOWR Project, which focuses on education programs to help young girls learn to recognize the symptoms of endometriosis.
After she was diagnosed, there were other hurdles for Lakshmi. "I was told I would never have children naturally, that I only had a 10 to 15 percent of having them in vitro," she recalls. "When you're staring down the barrel of your 40th birthday and you hear that you can't have kids because this disease went unchecked and undiagnosed for so many years, it's devastating."
That is why she calls the birth of her daughter, Krishna, in 2010, "a miracle." She says, "I'm so lucky to have her. Her middle name is Thea, which means ‘gift from God.' "
At just 5yearsold, Lakshmi's "miracle" is getting in on her mom's efforts. While Lakshmi plans the upcoming April 13 Blossom Ball to benefit the EFA, Krishna is also trying to do her part.
Recently, the proud mom says, "she was separating the coins from her piggybank and she said, ‘Mommy, you can have my money for your charity.' She knows that Mom has a charity for women with ‘tummy aches.' She wants to help."
For more of our interview with Padma Lakshmi, pick up the latestissue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
– Liz McNeil