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Her baby arrived. Now this Gulfport mom needs a heart.

Gulfport resident Caitlin Johnson Irwin, diagnosed with congestive heart failure, holds newborn son John Patrick Irwin III while her husband, John Irwin Jr., looks on. Caitlin, 27, is awaiting a heart transplant.
Gulfport resident Caitlin Johnson Irwin, diagnosed with congestive heart failure, holds newborn son John Patrick Irwin III while her husband, John Irwin Jr., looks on. Caitlin, 27, is awaiting a heart transplant.

One minute, she was looking forward to the birth of her first baby. The next, Caitlin Johnson Irwin was having an emergency C-section two months before her due date.

It all happened so fast. She was pale and tired, then short of breath. The 27-year-old accountant was diagnosed in an emergency room with congestive heart failure, then rushed by ambulance to Mobile.

Today, the Gulfport resident and Long Beach native is at the top of the heart transplant list at Ochsner’s Medical Center in New Orleans.

Her son, John Patrick Irwin III, is doing fine. He’s finally in New Orleans, staying with his father, John Patrick Irwin Jr., and paternal grandparents.

Caitlin is now able to see him for an hour every day, which has boosted her spirits tremendously.

“She’s a tough cookie,” said her mom, Long Beach school teacher Martha Johnson, who is by Caitlin’s side, along with her father, Conrad Johnson.

Caitlin has coded twice, but was doing better over the weekend and Monday.

“You have to be a cheerleader when you come in the room,” her mother said. “You can’t cry. It’s just not allowed. We don’t have time for tears. You can cry, but you can’t do it in the room.”

Caitlin has already overcome cataracts as a baby and survived a near-death experience at age 16, the year after Hurricane Katrina. She was diagnosed then with West Nile virus, typhoid fever and salmonella. Her family was called to her bedside to say goodbye.

You have to be a cheerleader when you come in the room. You can’t cry. It’s just not allowed. We don’t have time for tears. You can cry, but you can’t do it in the room.

Martha Johnson, Caitlin Irwin’s mom

Caitlin pulled through. She had to relearn to walk and talk, then insisted on playing softball.

“I sure didn’t want her to play,” her mother said. “She was just so fragile. But she needed those girls and she needed to play.”

The doctors said Caitlin may never know what caused her congestive heart failure. She went to the doctor because she was short of breath. The doctor sent her to the emergency room.

Once her baby was delivered a day later, March 28, Caitlin cried to see him. She was at the University of South Alabama Medical Center, while Patrick was in the newborn intensive care unit at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital.

“Those nurses wrapped that baby up, went rogue and broke all the rules,” Martha Johnson said. After Caitlin held Patrick, she was rushed by helicopter to Ochsner’s.

Her husband traveled between Mobile and New Orleans until Patrick was released from the hospital and joined them.

The family’s medical and living expenses are considerable. Two of Caitlin’s siblings have set up a page for her on YouCaring, a fundraising website that charges no fees. By Monday afternoon, they had raised $76,245 toward a $200,000 goal. Friends in Long Beach also put together at least one fundraiser to help the young family.

Caitlin has already endured more than one surgery. In New Orleans, she was fitted with a tandem heart pump. She is hoping her next operation will be a transplant.

Both the Johnson and Irwin families are members of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Long Beach. Prayer is seeing them through.

They have asked for prayers on social media and wrote on Caitlin’s YouCaring page, “We must be patient for God’s plan to unfold.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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