Opera Singer Thrives After Double Lung Transplant

Lung transplant patient Charity Tillemann-Dick now sings opera better than ever.

October 27, 2010, 12:52 AM

Oct. 27, 2010— -- Opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick, 26, took the stage Tuesday to open this year's TEDMED conference in San Diego with an exquisitely sung aria.

The conference, an event that examines novel approaches to medicine and healthcare, marks an important anniversary for the singer -- a year ago to the day she awoke from a month-long coma following a difficult double lung transplant.

At age 20, Tillemann-Dick was just starting her singing career in Europe when she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the arteries supplying the lungs have unusually high blood pressure, putting patients at risk for heart failure.

"I saw a specialist and she told me that I had to stop singing, that those high notes were going to kill me," the soprano said at Tuesday's conference. "She was emphatic: I was singing my own obituary."

But Tillemann-Dick did not give up singing and even when her condition worsened and she had to carry around a 4-pound apparatus that delivered medicine to her continually just to be able to function, she managed to perform all over the globe.

"She just wasn't going to let [her condition] rule her life," the singer's mother, Annette Tillemann-Dick says.

After her father died suddenly however, her condition worsened, as did her voice. When the singer had right heart failure due to her worsening symptoms, she finally gave in to her doctor's advice and agreed to a double-lung transplant.

Singer Gets New Set of Pipes

Given that opera singing focuses heavily on proper breathing technique, Tillemann-Dick was less than floored when the impossible happened: a donor from Texas was available as a match within days of her agreeing to undergo the procedure.

"I had spent my entire life training my lungs. I wasn't enthusiastic about giving them up," she says. She asked her surgeon at the Cleveland clinic, Dr. Ken McCurry, to please try to save her voice. Knowing that the breathing tubes put in place after her surgery would no doubt destroy her voice, while still in a post-operative coma, surgeons performed a special procedure to reroute the tubes to preserve a slim chance that Tillemann-Dick might perform again.

Long Road to Recovery

The surgery had been a trying one, with the singer flat-lining twice and the month-long coma following left doctors wondering why she was not waking up.

By the time she woke from her coma, she had been on a respirator for so long that her diaphragm had atrophied, forcing her to relearn the simple task of breathing -- a feat that took two and a half months, she says. It was Christmas Eve last year, just months after her surgery ,when she first attempted to sing along with her occupational therapist to a Christmas song.

"It wasn't much of a voice, but it was something," she says. Now, just a year later, her vocal couch says that her voice is even better than it was before her surgery.

To this day, Tilleman-Dick says she thinks often of the first doctor's prescription, that she should never sing again. She credits doctors at Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic for believing that she could have a higher quality of life than that.

"We need to stop letting disease divorce us from our dreams. We will find that patients don't just survive, we thrive," she said, closing her presentation.

A Lung Breathing Outside the Body

Tilleman-Dick's story highlights the incredible medical feats made possible by organ transplantation, but it was the next presenter at TEDMED, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, director of the Toronto Lung Program, who is taking transplants to a realm usually left to science fiction.

"Charity would not be alive today if it were not for her lung transplant," Keshavjee said Tuesday. He "marvels" at what transplant can do for patients today and the technology he and his colleagues are working on with hopes to extend the number of patients who can undergo transplantation by improving the quality of donor organs available.

How does he intend to do that? Using an apparatus he helped create that allows a human lung to breathe and live outside of the human body. Using a freshly-harvested pig lung as a demonstration on stage Tuesday, Keshavjee showed how a donor lung can live independent of any body long enough for doctors to use sophisticated therapies on it, such as genetic modification, that make it more suitable for donation.

"It's fascinating," domestic guru and TEDMED attendee Martha Stewart said as she, as one of a few volunteers from the audience, was allowed to squeeze the breathing lung with a gloved hand.

Normally, to slow the process of dying, donor tissues are flash-cooled, a process that makes it harder for the organ to get up and running once transplanted. With this apparatus, the lung not only doesn't have to be cooled but it can be treated and improved and hopefully, one day can be made to match the patient's body so closely that rejection -- the ruin of many transplantations -- will no longer be an issue.

"We have transplanted 30 patients with lungs we wouldn't normally use [using this technology]. Now 30 people are alive. It's something I certainly never thought I would see in my lifetime," he says.

TEDMED is a yearly conference dedicated to increasing innovation in the medical realm: "from personal health to public health, devices to design and Hollywood to the hospital," the website explains.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events