A 33-year-old bride preparing for two weddings suffered a grueling medical emergency that required surgery just one day before she was set to exchange her vows.
When it came time for longtime sweethearts Rhema Gaines and Eze Nnadi to marry, the Orlando, Florida, couple wanted to throw two separate weddings for their families. The first would be a traditional Nigerian ceremony on May 24, followed by a Western wedding on May 26.
With the big weekend approaching, Gaines had her sights set on piecing together the final wedding details — until something wasn’t right.
“I had come down with a flu or upper respiratory infection. I went to the ER, and they kept me for a really long time,” Gaines, who shares a 2-year-old daughter with Nnadi, tells PEOPLE. “Eventually symptoms of the infection were going away, but I was still there. They were still running scans, and I didn’t know what was going on.”
Doctors ultimately found a cyst resting on Gaines’ ovaries, but this was no typical growth — it was a dermoid ovarian cyst, a noncancerous lump that often contains a buildup of hair, fluid, teeth or skin glands since they form from embryonic cells, according to Mayo Clinic. Dermoid cysts are rare, and even more so on the ovaries. The growths will typically begin during a woman’s reproductive years.
Gaines’ cyst either wasn’t noticed by doctors when she was pregnant two years earlier, or it simply hadn’t grown yet.
“There we were two years after giving birth, and they’re seeing this mass grow inside of me that’s the size of a melon,” Gaines says. “That’s not normal.”
The team’s plan was to remove the cyst via an operation to minimize any risk it would rupture and cause an infection, but because her dual weddings were approaching, the doctors assured her the surgery could wait. One doctor even said he had never seen a cyst like hers burst in his 30-year career.
Gaines went on with her wedding preparations, confident that her medical scare could be put on pause. Then things went wrong once again.
“With the wedding planning, all the stress of having not one but two weddings is going on, and the Sunday before that wedding I started to not feel well,” she says. “By Tuesday I was really ill. By Wednesday I couldn’t even walk. I was hunched over, and I’m still trying to do last-minute wedding stuff.”
By 10 p.m. that night, Gaines was back in the emergency room, where doctors discovered the melon-sized cyst had ruptured.
“At this point I’m scared. Because I’m thinking, am I going to miss my wedding?” says Gaines, adding that doctors were worried she could develop sepsis. “I’m like, I don’t think I’m gonna make it. They told me, ‘Sweetie, you’re past that point. You’re going to have emergency surgery. We have to do this to save your life.’ “
Once in the operating room, the surgeons made three incisions in Gaines’ abdomen, one on her side and another near her belly button.
“They got it out, everything,” she says. “The surgery went very well, thankfully. But everything leading up to the surgery was a nightmare.”
Gaines was released from the hospital shortly after the operation, with only 24 hours to go before the first of her ceremonies.
“Everybody was at the house trying to organize everything, and then the next morning I had to go to the rehearsal walk through — and I could barely walk,” she says.
“I had to pull it together to get hair and makeup done. But they had me on pain killers, which helped me get through Friday,” adds Gaines. “Friday was the worst, though, because I was in so much pain, and Nigerian weddings are all about dancing and it’s all about the bride.”
The second wedding, which was captured by Orlando photographer Anesha Collins of Unashamed Imaging, went off without a hitch, and now Gaines and Nnadi are settling into married life after an eventful start.
“I’m so happy. Even though there was that black mark on the situation, it just feels really good to walk away with a legacy that we had one of the best weddings in our family, like wow, we did it,” Gaines says of the situation. “I’m so grateful that I was able to triumph.”