TikToker with Chronic Illness Cries After 'Super-Hardcore' Gym-Goer Offers Her Encouragement: 'He Made My Day' (Exclusive)

“So thankful for people like him," Stephanie Hoffman said on social media, adding that she had been struggling with "deep-rooted insecurities"

<p>Stephanie Hoffman/Tiktok</p> Stephanie Hoffman

Stephanie Hoffman/Tiktok

Stephanie Hoffman

When Stephanie Hoffman started documenting her gym journey on TikTok, she hoped it would help others with chronic illness — but she never expected her story to go viral.

“I just thought that maybe somebody who was having a similar experience would be encouraged, or could relate to me and not feel so alone,” says 33-year-old Hoffman, who suffered a blood clot in 2018 that led to long-term illness.

“You stay home and you're in pain and you're on medicine and you kind of lose a lot of friends being sick all the time,” the Jacksonville, Fla., resident tells PEOPLE exclusively. “The gym became an outlet for me."

But it was her story about a positive encounter with a fellow gym-goer that led to more than 14 million people viewing her TikTok.

Hoffman, who has been on and off steroids, which often cause weight gain, says she’s been bullied for her size and called an “ogre.”

"There’s a lot of thoughts that go through your head being a bigger woman at the gym," she starts out. "It kind of messes with your head." She adds that recent weeks have been difficult.

"I’ve already been struggling lately, especially with my progress over the last few weeks," she says. "I still have some deep-rooted insecurities about being heavier and neglecting myself."

So when a “super hardcore” gym-goer approached her, she was expecting a negative encounter.

“I was like, ‘Here we go,’” she said. Instead, he applauded Hoffman: "'I’ve seen you in here every week, almost every day — and I’m proud of you,'" Hoffman recalls him saying.

Through tears, she shared the impact of his words. "You have no idea how much people that are going through something appreciate the kindness. Because he doesn’t have to say it, he doesn’t know what I’m going through."

“So thankful for people like him, and him, who encourage people like me, that are going through something,” Hoffman, who wears a medical bracelet, said in the video. "He changed my day."

Related: TikToker Chris Rooney — aka, 'Yeet Baby' — Returns to School After 17 Days in Mental Health Facility

<p>Stephanie Hoffman/Tiktok</p> Inflammation in her joints.

Stephanie Hoffman/Tiktok

Inflammation in her joints.

Hoffman's health struggles first began in 2018, when she says she developed a large DVT (deep vein thrombosis — aka, a blood clot) in her leg that doctors initially misdiagnosed.

“I got told it was shin splints, one time leg strain,” Hoffman, a software implementation specialist, says.

But then two parts of the clot broke off, she says, and traveled to her lungs.

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“I became like this chronic illness, chronic pain patient where they were like, ‘Here, just take this steroid’ or ‘Here, just take this pain medicine.’”

The pain medicine, however, triggered an unlikely chain of events.

“I happened to be the lucky candidate that had the rare side effect of the liver starting to shut down," she says.

“On the inside, I'm sick and I'm inflamed and in pain.” she tells PEOPLE. “I was super depressed. I was grieving…[And] every time I would go in [to the doctor], they’d say, ‘You need to lose weight’, but all they would tell me is, ‘Go to the gym and work out.’ But they didn't really give me any tools.”

That’s when Hoffman started doing her own research, growing her own vegetables — and documenting everything on TikTok, where she has nearly 100,000 followers.

When she started working out, “It was just walking ‘cause I couldn't really bend my leg. My leg was just stiff as a board.”

And now, she tells PEOPLE, ”My legs are super strong. I can lift 540 lbs.” on the leg press.

Although she doesn’t weigh herself, Hoffman does say she’s gone down three pants sizes and two shirt sizes. “If I focus on the weight itself, it would be discouraging and not accurate, because of the water weight and inflammation, plus muscle I’ve gained,” she says of the side effects of steroids.

Related: TikToker Kyle Prue Reveals Lyme Disease Struggle: 'I Have Entire Organs That Are Non-Functioning'

And as for the person at the gym who encouraged Hoffman, his name is John Stanley and “now we're best buds” Hoffman tells PEOPLE.

“I never thought I would have gym friends. But now I have a big support group family."

“People don't understand that part of life where you get sick and you need help,” Hoffman says. But, she adds, “It's gonna be ok. I know when I was at my darkest point, I wanted to see a little bit of hope. I'm not at my end goal yet. I have a long way to go, but I'm a lot more hopeful than I used to be.”

And she will never forget Stanley's kindness: "You know what? That made my day."

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