Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick lives a “terrifying, incredible, infuriating, beautiful, joyous life.”
Those are her words, from her just-released autobiography – “The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts.” Like a heroine in the operatic librettos she loves to perform for audiences worldwide, the internationally-renowned coloratura soprano and best-selling classical recording artist has endured numerous ups and downs in her 13-year battle with a life-threatening disease.
And the doctors and staff of Cleveland Clinic have played a supporting role throughout. As Dr. Toby Cosgrove, Cleveland Clinic’s president & CEO, wrote for the book’s back cover: “This is the story of a genuine medical miracle, facilitated by the best of modern medicine. “The Encore” reminds us that art and science belong together, creating synergies that promote the deepest kind of healing.”
While studying her craft in Hungary, Charity – now 34 – was diagnosed in 2004 with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a rare and incurable lung disease in which the gradual narrowing of blood vessels makes it harder for the heart to pump blood through the lungs. Devastating for any patient, the disease is particularly debilitating for an opera singer whose lungs are her instrument.
In 2008, Charity underwent a life-saving double lung transplant at Cleveland Clinic, enduring a month-long medically induced coma during her recovery. Less than nine months later, she “debuted” at the hospital’s annual Patient Experience Summit, performing for the men and women who saved her life.
Recalling that moment, she wrote, “Approaching the final note, I’m filled with gratitude for these lungs, for my family, for my doctors, for my donor. My life.”
But Charity’s “new” life would take another plot twist, just over a year later, when her health deteriorated due to chronic rejection of the transplanted organs. While that didn’t stop her from rising from a wheelchair to perform her Lincoln Center debut in 2011, and from getting married just days after, a few months later she returned – seriously ill and near death — to the Cleveland Clinic for her second double-lung transplant.
As with the first, the transplant was performed by Dr. Kenneth McCurry, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, who has performed over 200 lung transplants in his career.
This time, no rejection. In the years since, Charity has recorded a best-selling album, performed at countless venues, and presented numerous inspirational talks to awe-struck audiences. And – in another libretto-like twist – been treated for cancerous tumors in the parotid gland near her jaw.
But undeterred, she battles on. “I’m playing a bit role in something truly great,” Charity wrote in her memoir. “Somehow, I know this is a moment to be still. A moment to feel awe and to bask in the greatest wonder of all: the love that binds us together and gives us reason to live.”
Charity Tillemann-Dick is an advocate for Donate Life America, a non-profit organization focused on increasing the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available to save and heal lives through transplantation. Learn more about Charity’s Donate Life #MyEncore Challenge and register to become an organ, eye and tissue donor.