Singing with someone else’s lungs

Transplant gives voice back to singer

You’re a gifted singer with your voice at its peak and a promising future ahead of you. And then the doctors break some terrible news: You need a double lung transplant.

For anyone, that news would be shocking.  But for a singer, that could also mean the end of all of one’s hopes and dreams.

Charity Tillemann-Dick. Photo: John Armato

That was the news given to opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick in 2009, and she has told the story surrounding that momentous event in a new book, ‘The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts’(available here at Amazon and all major retailers). On September 30, she spoke to NPR’s Scott Simon about the frightening news, the surgery and the aftermath. You can hear and read the moving interview at NPR’s website here.

She told Simon that she almost died during the transplant surgery – she flat-lined twice – and the doctors left her chest open for two weeks. She was in a coma for 34 days and it was months before she could breathe on her own.

“My voice was gone”

She told Simon, “When I woke up from the surgery, I saw the nurses and my mother, and I was just so profoundly grateful to be alive and I opened my mouth to say ‘thank you’ and nothing came out. My voice was gone.”

Charity underwent both the usual post-surgical therapy and also vocal training: learning to sing with somebody else’s lungs.

“There’s something very mystical about singing. Because we all have these two tiny little flaps of skin in our throat, but some people can’t really sing at all,” Charity told Simon during the interview. “And some people sound like angels when they do it, you know? [Laughs.] And no one really knows why!

“And I think that for me, singing with someone else’s lungs, it never lets me forget that I’m not the one who’s in charge — whether you call it fate or chance or God, that we all have a reason that we’re here; we all have a song to sing, whether it’s musical or not. And I am very conscious of the fact that I am one of the human embodiments of my organ donor’s life.”

“We’re usually one another’s angels”

Imagine: singing with someone else’s lungs. As she stood backstage, ready for her debut at the Lincoln Center, all she could think about was the person she had never met who generously pre-planned the donation of their organs for transplant.

Charity’s amazing experience, and the many people whose skill and selfless generosity gave her a new lease on life, have had a profound effect on her. In the interview, she said, “I think sometimes we want winged figures to bring us miracles, but I think in life we’re usually one another’s angels.”

Transplants saved my life, too

The subject of organ donation is very important in my own life.  I’m alive today thanks entirely to kidney transplants, firstly from my father, Sheldon, and then from my sister Tishia.  My brother Ken’s life was saved with a kidney donated by a stranger who had pre-planned their organ donation, and my friend Jim is healthy today due to a liver transplant.

To learn more about organ donation and how you might save a life, go to this informational U.S. Government website.  By registering as a donor, you could give up to 8 people a second chance. Did you know that 20 people die every day due to the shortage of available organ donors and more than 116,000 Americans are awaiting transplants right now? Please become a donor!