Finding strength in weakness
When Jennifer Pizzirusso was born 30 years ago, her parents received terrible news.
Doctors diagnosed Jennifer with a heart condition known as pulmonary stenosis. In short, her pulmonary heart valve (one of four valves in the heart) was thin, and blood didn’t circulate correctly. She underwent open-heart surgery at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to remove the valve when she was just 13 days old.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” —Proverbs 3:5-6
“As I grew, they said I wouldn’t be able to keep up with other kids and that I would tire faster, but honestly, I never had any of that,” Jennifer says. “I never felt like I could do less than any other kid. I never experienced any of the tiredness they said I would have. As I grew, I was completely fine.
“God’s hand has been over my health since birth because I have never been hindered by my condition, even when doctors said I would. I’ve been able to study and see the world.”
As a child and teenager growing up in The Salvation Army in Milford, Pa., Jennifer was even able to study ballet and dance from the age of 5 until college.
Jennifer visited her cardiologist each year for a checkup. The plan was always to give her a new pulmonary valve once her heart reached adult size. During her senior year at Wheaton College in 2013, doctors determined it was time to install a porcine valve from a pig.
“Between finding out, testing, and getting it done, it took months,” Jennifer recalled. “The waiting was the hard part. In the waiting, I had to deal with what was about to happen. It wasn’t really as hard to go through the surgery as to wait for it.
“When I look back at it, I remember how weak I felt, but also how spiritually strong I was because I was so close to God. I literally spent nights when I did not sleep. I just sat with my Bible, trying to find some comfort, some hope, and some strength. That’s what brought me through. Nobody else. Not the doctors. Nobody. Without God, I don’t know how I would have made it.”
Finding peace in God’s Word
Jennifer said as the surgery neared, she clung to Proverbs 3:5-6 and several verses from Psalms. She especially found reassurance and hope in Psalm 16. She still has the Bible, which she highlighted passages such as:
“Keep me safe, O God,
for in you I take refuge.
I said to the Lord, You are my Lord;
Apart from you I have no good thing.’”
“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me.”
“Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body will also rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
“These verses pushed me to trust in God,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t need to understand why I was going through surgery, all God wanted from me was trust in Him.
“It sounds crazy when you hear that someone could find such strength and comfort in just words, but it’s not just any words. It’s God’s Word. That’s really what gave me strength at that time.”
Tests and trials
The surgery was not the only issue Jennifer faced. She was still figuring out what to do with her life, and her grandfather, Commissioner Lawrence R. Moretz, The Salvation Army’s former commander in the USA Eastern Territory, was battling cancer.
“I had so much going on and at the same time, I had this surgery on my mind,” she said. “It was a difficult time that I now look back on. But I also realize that it was a wonderful time because I was seeking God. I had no one else to go to. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Is God going to bring me through this? I didn’t know. When it’s an open-heart surgery, it’s not something simple.”
Commissioner Moretz died on May 16, 2013, just a few days after Jennifer graduated from Wheaton.
“I remember going to his funeral a week before my surgery,” she said. “Everything was coming at me at the same time. It was a really hard time for our family.”
Jennifer’s support system included her parents, Lawrence and Joanne Moretz, and her grandmother, Commissioner Nancy Moretz.
“She was amazing,” Jennifer said of her grandmother. “She’s always amazing. She’s always been a prayer warrior for our family. She’s always praying for all of us and you can feel that. She was there every day, even though she was grieving herself.”
Jennifer’s second open-heart surgery finally happened at The Mount Sinai Hospital, the same location of her first operation. She said the pain afterward was “beyond belief,” but she persevered.
“I just remember waking up and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m OK.’ I could not believe it,” she said.
Back on her feet
Doctors said she would be in the hospital for a week without complications, but she again bucked the odds and was released in three days. She was discharged from the intensive care unit.
“They said it was the fastest they ever saw anybody recover at Mount Sinai,” Jennifer said. “In the end, the surgery itself wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was waiting for it before and then recovering afterwards.”
“I felt less alone during the recovery. I felt like a lot of people were praying for me and I had a lot of support. I recovered quickly and faster than I had expected.”
Just a month later, Jennifer felt well enough to work at Star Lake Camp for the summer.
In 2014, just a year and a half after her surgery, Jennifer moved to Argentina and served overseas with The Salvation Army South America East Territory for almost five years. In 2016, she earned a master’s degree in translation from the New York University School of Professional Studies.
As for the future, Jennifer and her husband, Elias Pizzirusso, are headed to the College for Officer Training (CFOT) this fall to join the “Reflectors of Holiness” session with a goal of becoming Salvation Army officers. They are currently soldiers at the Bedford Temple Corps in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Jennifer is the corps ministry assistant.
Jennifer also knows she will likely need another open-heart surgery. The porcine valve Jennifer received eight years ago has a lifespan of 10-15 years.
“We are hopeful that it can be done less invasively, so perhaps not a full-on open-heart surgery, since advances have been made in the medical field,” Jennifer says.
“I’ve been doing fine since my last surgery. My heart condition has never stopped me from doing anything. It’s a huge blessing because so many kids and adults are limited by going through a heart condition. I’ve never had any restrictions because of it.”
A heart health advocate
Jennifer, who still sees her cardiologist each year, urges others to take care of their health and get their hearts examined. February is American Heart Month.
“Everything I have been through has really taught me not to be afraid,” she said. “I know a lot of people have that fear about going to the doctor because of what they might find, but it’s more important to take care of yourself.
“If they give you any bad news or tell you that you need surgery or something scary, God is going to take you through that. You don’t need to be afraid. He’s going to bless and honor the fact that you’re trying to take care of yourself and the body He has given you. You don’t want to go through something that could have been not as hard.”
Jennifer said the family believes her father died of a heart attack. Her husband’s father, Major Hugo Pizzirusso, a Salvation Army officer in South America, also suffered a heart attack.
“I’ve been through that and I wish both of them could have been prevented,” Jennifer said. “Go see the doctors you need to see and get yourself checked out because you never know. You really don’t, and things can change so quickly. It’s important to take care of your body.”
For someone who has been through so much, Jennifer remains upbeat.
“God has taken great care of me and blessed me wonderfully, despite the struggles and hardships,” she said. “Something that was supposed to make me weak, according to doctors, has brought me great strength because it has taught me to trust in God and to lean on His strength. I have been able to do so much, even with my heart condition, and God gets all the glory for that.”
by Robert Mitchell