SALEM -- The Rev. Connie D. Sassanella has a new life and a new outlook.
And with good reason.
Her recovery from a severe illness, she says, "is a miracle."
At 3 p.m. Sept. 22, she will be installed as the new pastor of Holy Trinity English Lutheran Church, 1089 E. State St., Salem.
At the same service, she will also be celebrating the 25th anniversary of her ordination. She was also recently recognized as the first female pastor to celebrate 25 years in the ministry in the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
She credits her recovery to the power of prayer.
"It's the healing power of the body of Christ," said the Rev. Ms. Sassanella.
She's especially inviting people and congregations that she knew were praying for her.
The service, she said, "will be a celebration of life instead of a funeral."
Illness strikes
Her happy circumstances are a reversal of her life for many months.
Ms. Sassanella was the pastor of Martin Luther Lutheran Church on the South Side of Youngstown.
The illness began when she woke up in the middle of the night with what she thought was an upper respiratory virus.
She was tired and put it down to the stress of running an inner-city parish. Ms. Sassanella said she'd been, "Trying to burn the candle at both ends and in the middle, too."
In October of 2000, she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a virus in her heart that kept it from functioning properly.
There was no known cause. "A virus goes wild and hits an organ," she said.
Odds of recovery
The first doctor the pastor went to gave her a 50-50 chance of living one year without medication. Even with medication, she was given the same 50-50 odds of living five more years.
She wound up being treated by Dr. Randall C. Starling, director of heart transplant medical services at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Dr. Starling told Ms. Sassanella that the odds of her improving, staying the same, or getting worse in the first six months even with medication were each about 30 percent. Still, the doctor thought she would be in the 30 percent who improve.
The pastor said she had no energy, and in 2001 resigned her job at Martin Luther after 14 years.
But people were praying for her: Friends, fellow pastors and different congregations.
Message from above
During Ms. Sassanella's illness, a woman in a prayer group received a prophetic word about her illness and had her daughter pass a message to Ms. Sassanella.
"'They say you're going to be fine,'" recalled Ms. Sassanella. "It meant a lot to me."
Despite her deep fatigue, Ms. Sassanella never believed that her life was over.
"I never got that low. I never lost hope," said Ms. Sassanella. She had a "sense of purpose."
But that purpose wasn't clear. But she decided she could always do something.
It was an attitude of, "let's see what happens," said the pastor. "And I just grew into it."
She did some antiquing. She studied the Psalms.
Ms. Sassanella also developed a new attitude, a willingness to let go and take risks and try different things. She feels, "A greater freedom to reach out beyond the norm."
The medication finally kicked in. Ms. Sassanella said Dr. Starling told her he had never seen anyone improve so quickly, and another doctor told her she was only the second person he had ever seen completely recover from dilated cardiomyopathy.
By the fall of 2001, Ms. Sassanella said, "I was back in the saddle."
The pastor is thankful for all those who prayed for her. And she sees the power of the church as it shows "love and forgiveness and being there for people."
Holy Trinity, a church with about 400 members, was looking for a pastor.
"It's a wonderful local church. There's no reason this church can't grow," said Ms. Sassanella.
She has no physical limitations from her illness.
"There's nothing I can't do," Ms. Sassanella said.

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