Nicole Brewer-Gurganious says Damien Gurganious died on her birthday, leaving her behind with their 2-year-old daughter
Credit: Parris Whittingham

Damien Gurganious planned to take his wife out for Peruvian food and a movie once he got out of the hospital after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease last month.

Instead, on Nov. 24, “he passed away on my birthday,” Nicole Brewer-Gurganious, his wife and fellow Biggest Loser contestant, tells PEOPLE. He leaves behind their 2-year-old daughter, Giselle.

“Damien had a way of making every day feel like your birthday,” says Brewer-Gurganious, 44. “He loved life and treated every day as if it were a gift.”

The shocking death of the Brooklyn-born industrial designer comes after he maintained his weight loss in the wake of competing on The Biggest Loser: Couples 2 in 2009 with Brewer-Gurganious.

The pair wed in August 2009, and together became certified group fitness instructors after the show.

“He encouraged and motivated people no matter their size or age,” Brewer-Gurganious says of her husband, who developed challenging aqua boot camp sessions for 24 Hour Fitness and the YMCA. “His classes were packed with people eager to soak up all of his positive energy, contagious enthusiasm and amazing smile.”

Gurganious’s medical crisis began on Nov. 20, two days after his 38th birthday, when he suffered a nosebleed and his mouth became swollen. He had a hard time swallowing. He thought he had an allergic reaction to some soup he ate, so he went to the ER hoping a shot of epinephrine would alleviate the problem. A day later, “we discovered his blood platelets were alarmingly low,” Brewer-Gurganious says, and Gurganious was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare autoimmune disorder.

Doctors said treatment for ITP could restore blood platelets and “he could live with the disease as we now know many people do,” Brewer-Gurganious says.

Encouraged, Gurganious made birthday plans with his wife, but the disease caused bleeding in his brain, and he died four days after he was admitted.

Trainer Bob Harper wrote on Facebook Friday: “Such sad news about a Biggest Loser family member passing so unexpectedly. Damien had such a great spirit and dynamic personality. My heart goes out to his wife, Nicole, and daughter, Giselle. RIP, Damien, I know you are making the Angels laugh. #brooklynlove.”

Brewer-Gurganious, a wardrobe stylist, says that she and Gurganious, whom she met in 2006, had dreamed of becoming parents, and at least he was able to see that happen.

“Watching my husband with Giselle was the most rewarding part of our journey to parenthood and our marriage,” she says. “She would light up in his presence as if no one else existed in the world. My favorite memory of them was as Giselle started talking and learning new words, he would reward her with a huge hug and flip in the air. She couldn’t wait to say “apple,” just waiting for her ride to the sky with daddy!”

As for how their daughter is doing, Brewer-Gurganious says that “while Giselle may not remember all of this, it will be my duty to keep her father on the tip of my tongue, sharing stories and reminding her of all the dreams he had for our family.”

NBC confirmed to PEOPLE that the network would acknowledge Gurganious during the Dec. 11 episode of The Biggest Loser.

Meanwhile, friends have started an online fundraiser at to provide Brewer-Gurganious and her daughter financial aid in the wake of their sudden loss, to help them have time to grieve.

“Damien was the love of my life – I waited my entire life for him,” she says. “Damien was made especially for me. I simply cannot imagine living without him.”