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Charity Tilleman-Dick (YouTube)
Charity Tilleman-Dick (YouTube)

Hear her sing

‘I was singing my own obituary’: Opera singer with double lung transplants dies at 35

By WITW Staff on April 26, 2019

Charity Tillemann-Dick, the soprano who underwent two double lung transplants but continued to dazzle audiences with her powerful voice, has died at the age of 35.

The cause of death, according to the Washington Post, was complications due to immunosuppression from the transplants. “This morning, life’s curtain closed on one of its consummate heroines,” Tillemann-Dick’s family posted on her Facebook page Wednesday. “Our beloved Charity passed peacefully with her husband, mother, and siblings at her side and sunshine on her face” — a nod to Tillemann-Dick’s nickname, Charity Sunshine.

Throughout her remarkable career, Tillemann-Dick performed at a number of prestigious venues, including Lincoln Center in New York, the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Palace of the Arts in Budapest, according to the BBC. But her ambitions threatened to be cut short when, at the age of 20, she was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung condition defined by high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs. Tillemann-Dick’s doctor told her she would have to stop singing.

“She was absolutely emphatic: I was singing my own obituary,” Tillemann-Dick told the Post in 2013.

But Tillemann-Dick was not prepared to surrender her beloved calling. She continued to sing, managing her condition with a medication known as Flolan, which was delivered intravenously via a tube in her chest. By 2009, however, it was clear that Tillemann-Dick’s lungs were failing and she would need a transplant. Doctors found her a match, and in the aftermath of the grueling surgery, she had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat — and sing.

The reprieve was short-lived. In 2011, her body started to reject the transplant and she was told she would need another one to survive. Before the surgery, she performed at Lincoln Center, with an oxygen tank and wheelchair waiting for her backstage.

“Applause follows me as I step behind the curtain and collapse into a wheelchair,” she wrote in her 2017 memoir, recounting the performance. “My lungs — my instruments — are failing. I am dying. As we round the corner to my dressing room, tears stream down my cheeks. My dream is no longer a future hope — some distant possibility. It’s real. Even if my voice is silenced forever, I’ve just shared the greatest performance of my life in the greatest concert hall in the world.”

The second transplant was a success and, once again, Tillemann-Dick continued to sing. Her debut album, American Grace, reached the top of Billboard’s traditional classical charts in 2014.

Then came another blow. In 2015, Tillemann-Dick was diagnosed with skin cancer. Like other transplant patients, she was susceptible to certain types of cancers due to the immunosuppressant drugs she had to take. Tillemann-Dick subsequently underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

In the face of the medical hardships she endured, Tillemann-Dick remained optimistic and grateful for the chances she had been given to prolong her life.

“It’s each of our dreams to spend our lives with the people — with the thing that we love most — and I’m so grateful to be given another opportunity to sing and to share,” she told CBS News. “And it brings me more joy than I can express. And I express a lot of things so that’s saying something!”

Read more at the Washington Post.

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