U.S. News

TEDMED 2010: Opera Singer's Illness Had Her 'Singing Her Own Obituary' (VIDEO)

Charity Tilleman-Dick, an American soprano who has sung opera at the Kennedy Center and throughout Europe, awoke from a month-long coma in September, 2009, after receiving a double lung transplant.

A year and a day later she was singing in front of a captivated audience at TEDMED.

"Crazy, I know," said Tilleman-Dick as she began to explain her illness and the treatment that saved her life. In 2004, the young singer was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Hypertension (PH) a disease she described as the "reverse Grinch effect," because it caused her heart to grow three-and-a-half sizes too big.

PH occurs from a thickening in the pulmonary veins, forcing the right side of the heart to work overtime. The disease makes the simplest day to day activities difficult and sometimes even life-threatening -- including singing.

Soon after her diagnosis, Tilleman-Dick was told by a specialist that singing -- the thing that she says brought her closest to transcendence -- would kill her. "There was a relationship between operatic arias and pulmonary tension," explained Tilleman-Dick. "She [the doctor] was absolutely emphatic I was singing my own obituary."

Using a pump to intravenously feed medicine to her body, Tilleman-Dick was able to continue her career. The four-pound pump (which she called a "costume nightmare") was at her side administering medicine 24-hours a day, even while she sang on stage in Opera houses throughout Europe.

Tilleman-Dick eventually took her doctors' advice and underwent a double lung transplant, a surgery she had avoided in fear that it might cost her her voice.