Danielle Gaither was nine months pregnant when she walked into the hospital this past February with contractions and trouble breathing. Her chest was hurting and she wasn’t sure she’d make it.
“I thought I was dying. I couldn’t believe it,” she tells PEOPLE.
Doctors sprang into action and quickly realized they’d have to perform two surgeries at once – delivering her baby via C-section and then performing open-heart surgery to save mother and baby.
“They were very close to dying. We had to act fast and we had to act as a team,” says Dr. Jeko Madjarov, the cardiothoracic surgeon with Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute that treated Danielle.
Gaither, who lives in Indian Trail, North Carolina, has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue and can result in high-risk pregnancies. When she arrived at the hospital that day, the main artery to her heart had torn, cutting off the blood supply to her and her unborn child.
Her body was shutting down – and fast.
“You think you’ve seen it all and something like this happens and that’s what medicine is all about,” Dr. Madjarov, 49, tells PEOPLE. “Usually you to do one procedure first and then follow with the next in a day or so, but in this case, we had to do everything at the same time because they both could have died.”
A team of 15 doctors and nurses worked for six hours and saved both mother and child.
Danielle, who spent months in the hospital recovering, was unable to see her baby because they were both at risk for infection. She still gets emotional thinking about the day she was finally strong enough to hold K.V.
“I remember the first time I saw my baby — he was 3 months, it was a happy moment — it brought happy tears to my eyes. I didn’t know he was going to be so big!” she recalls.
After five months at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and another few weeks in rehab, she was finally well enough to go home in late July.
“It’s a miracle,” she says. “It’s been a real life-changer.”
Gaither already had three kids before having K.V. and says now she savors time with each of them even more than she did before.
“I don’t take life for granted and I love every day of my life. All of my kids are a blessing,” she says. “It’s a miracle that I had all of them and I thank God for my life and I have and that I have all healthy kids.”
And she says she’s actually looking forward to going back to the hospital – to thank all the doctors and nurses who cared for her.
“I want to thank Dr. Madjarov the most — he saved my life and he stuck by me. He believed,” she says.
Madjarov says he expects Gaither to make a complete recovery.
“This case has brought me such professional satisfaction…basically moments like this make me proud that I make the right decision going into medicine,” he says.