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After heart transplant, gravely ill mother surrounded by support

Prayers, family and support from the transplant community surround young mother Caitlin Johnson Irwin as she recovers from heart-transplant surgery.

Johnson is missing her infant son, John Patrick Irwin III, who was delivered early after doctors discovered she was suffering from congestive heart failure.

She gave birth in Mobile, had a brief visit with Patrick, and was then whisked to Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. Husband John Irwin Jr. drove back and forth between Mobile and New Orleans until baby Patrick was strong enough to join the Johnson and Irwin families in a hotel near Ochsner.

Caitlin enjoyed visits with Patrick before her surgery, including on the eve of her transplant.

Caitlin was doing well on Friday, her mother said. A physical therapist had the 27-year-old out of bed, brushing her teeth and walking. She is still in the surgical intensive care unit, where Patrick is unable to join her.

“They’ve really got to watch for infection of any kind,” said her mother, Long Beach teacher Martha Loftus Johnson. “We do whatever they say. We follow the rules.”

Doctors are “real, real pleased” with Caitlin’s progress, Johnson said.

She and her husband, Conrad Johnson, were in the room Tuesday evening when doctors arrived to say a heart had been located. Her parents were wearing “Transplant Dat” T-shirts, in Saints colors.

Caitlin was so happy, she started to cry.

She texted her husband, who had stepped out. “Come back,” she typed. He thought something bad had happened. They assured him all was OK, but he ran all the way from the hotel to the hospital.

“We all had a good cry, thanking Jesus,” Martha Johnson said. “We said quite a few prayers of thanksgiving. We have a lot of prayer in this family.”

The donor’s identity will not be revealed for at least a year, and then only if the donor’s family wants it known.

“Some people are very happy and embrace you, and then for other people, it’s just too hard,” Johnson said. “It just depends. We don’t know where the heart came from, but we pray for them and their family.”

A transplant community thrives at Ochsner, where Caitlin has been visited by six other transplant patients, including a young woman who had a heart transplant and talked to Caitlin about what she can expect.

The Johnsons have been touched by countless acts of kindness, from churches on the Coast and New Orleans, and from people in other parts of the country who have seen Caitlin’s story online and sent cards.

Johnson said Mississippi Power, where both her daughters work, has sent over meals. Long Beach school children wore #TeamCaitlin T-shirts Friday printed at Elite Screen Printing in Gulfport, which sold 300 shirts and raised $5,000. Store manager Brandon Jones said donors were from as far away as Virginia.

“It’s definitely a story of how strong a community Long Beach is,” Jones said Friday. “The teachers came out of the woodwork to make that fundraiser happen.”

A YouCaring page has been set up for donations, which also are being accepted at Keesler Federal Credit Union for the Caitlin Johnson Irwin Medical Fund.

Before Caitlin’s surgery, the Johnsons went to Taco Bell for the first time in years. Martha Johnson told the young lady behind the counter that she wanted to take an Icee back to the hospital for her daughter, who was waiting for a heart. The young woman insisted on paying for the Icee. She even gave them the change from her purchase.

“Those are the kind of things that make me cry, the acts of kindness,” Johnson said. “People are so nice to you, that’s when my eyes get leaky.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99