Mother's never-ending hope paves way for son's recovery


The story of Baby Andrew is a special one. It’s got newborns and nuns, doctors and dreams. It has prayer and hope, sorrow and fear. But mostly, what the story of Baby Andrew has is heart — in every sense of the word.

At 8-and-a-half months old, the son of Jennifer and Andrew Johnson (names have been changed) is wide-eyed and chunky. He’s doing everything else a baby of that age is doing: scooting across the floor, sticking whatever he can into his mouth — and smiling ridiculously often.

But for Baby Andrew, each one of these simple acts is a small miracle. This is a little boy who was never supposed to scoot across the floor, eat or smile — because he was never supposed to live.

The diagnosis

In January 2011, nearly three months from his due date, Baby Andrew was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a rare heart disease that occurs when a baby’s heart does not fully develop in utero. Jennifer, a third-grade teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge, Va., was told by specialists near and far to prepare herself for the worst — that Baby Andrew’s heart would give out before he had a chance to develop fully in her womb. But the woman who had taught in a classroom dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the last 10 years wouldn’t accept bad news.

The last thing she could do, said the mother of three, including a miscarried baby in 2007, was sit around and do nothing.

Via Facebook, Jennifer asked friends and family around the world to pray for Baby Andrew’s miraculous healing.

“We know the prayers started right away,” Jennifer said.

On the way to visit an out-of-town specialist, Jennifer and Andrew saw a Nashville Dominican sister visiting from Rome at the airport. Feeling a connection because of her teaching position at Aquinas, Jennifer immediately approached the sister and asked her, too, to pray.

“We felt a sense of relief knowing that our intentions for (Baby Andrew) would be taken back to Rome,” she said. “I know he was prayed for worldwide.”

With Baby Andrew suffering from complications of HLHS, Jennifer went on a special medicine that did more than the doctors had been expecting. Still, however, the medical experts expected Baby Andrew to die by the end of February at the latest.

From then on, it was just “sit and wait and pray,” Jennifer said. “And we prayed and we prayed.”

In need of a heart

Defying the odds, Baby Andrew was born March 21 weighing a healthy 9 pounds, 2 ounces.

“He cried and it was the sweetest sound,” Jennifer said.

But they were hardly out of the woods. Because he was so sick, Baby Andrew was baptized and confirmed upon birth. Surgeons were nearby in case they needed to do emergency open-heart surgery.

“It was dire,” Jennifer said.

At 8 days old, Baby Andrew had his first open-heart surgery, with the doctors trying to avoid an immediate transplant by propping his heart valves open to allow blood to flow through.

He only got worse.

After the surgery, “he was white as a sheet and just lying there,” Jennifer said. “It was horrible.”

That’s when she knew there was no stop-gap fix. Baby Andrew needed a new heart, and he needed it soon.

Around this time of extreme anxiety and fear, Jennifer’s oldest daughter, Katelyn, had a dream where she and Jennifer were at a playground. In the dream, Jennifer told Katelyn to touch her chest, and when she did a hand-drawn heart appeared. Then Jennifer was replaced by the Blessed Mother, whose eyes shone gold.

“The hand-drawn heart turned into the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” Jennifer said, tears filling her eyes as she recounted the story. Then a voice that her daughter had never heard before said: “Don’t worry, your little brother will be OK.”

“That’s amazing,” Jennifer said. “You can’t explain that. You can’t.”
At the beginning of May, Baby Andrew was added to the United Network for Organ Sharing. The weeks of waiting were filled with scary days, Jennifer said, “but at the time I just had to believe it would be OK.

“Every day I prayed for the perfect heart at the perfect time,” Jennifer said, including a day when she knelt in a church and sobbed.

“I just remember saying, ‘I lay it down Lord, whatever way this goes, I lay it at Your feet,’” she prayed. “‘You know what I want, but it’s up to You.’”

Two days later, on July 1, Jennifer and Andrew received a phone call at 4:30 a.m. Baby Andrew had a donor. It was 19 days after Pentecost Sunday and Jennifer could hardly contain her excitement. July 1 was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The road to recovery

It seemed God indeed had provided Baby Andrew with “the perfect heart at the perfect time.” In the operating room, his new heart was a perfect fit, and Jennifer now considers the day of Baby Andrew’s transplant as his second birthday.

“After being basically re-born three months later, he has probably caught up to every developmental milestone you could expect,” she said. “We never gave up hope, never gave up prayers, and God saw him through to where he is today.”

Baby Andrew’s life will never be completely free of struggles. Right now, he visits the hospital every other month for a biopsy to look for signs of cellular rejection of his new heart. Wary of germs, Jennifer has four bottles of what her youngest daughter, Megan, calls “hanitizer” sitting on her desk, always to be used before touching the baby. And, in years to come, Baby Andrew likely will have to have another heart transplant.

But when that time comes, Jennifer will remember the lesson she has learned throughout the past 12 months.

“Try as we might, we have no control,” Jennifer said. “It’s up to God, and (we must learn) to trust in His plan.”

Every day Jennifer thanks God for the heart donor and for Baby Andrew’s health. She knows she can face the future because of her firm belief that she and her family are cradled in Jesus’ Sacred Heart.

“I prayed for the perfect heart at the perfect time and I’m confident that that’s what God gave us,” Jennifer said.

She paused, looking down at her healthy, all-smiles son.

“Because just look at him.”

Printed with permission from The Catholic Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Arlington, Va.


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