Two-Time Double-Lung Transplantee, Charity Sunshine, Shares her Story of Music and Hope
Becoming an acclaimed opera singer and classical recording artist is impressive enough. Now consider doing so after undergoing two double-lung transplants and surviving skin cancer.Most singers might have given up on their dreams after going on such a medical roller coaster. Not Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick. When she was diagnosed at the age of 20 with pulmonary hypertension — a rare condition in which oxygen isn’t properly absorbed by the body and forces the heart to work overtime — Tillemann-Dick took as deep a breath as she could muster and pushed on.
Now 34, the vivacious soprano is at the top of her game. She became a top-selling recording artist with her 2014 album, “American Grace.” Last year, she published a memoir, “The Encore,” while continuing to perform and speak in venues across the world. She has sung at the Lincoln Center in New York City, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Boston’s Symphony Hall and the National Palace of the Arts in Budapest, Hungary.
Tillemann-Dick is scheduled to sing and tell her story next month during a special appearance at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s George M. and Linda H. Kaufman Theater in Norfolk, Va. The program — Music. Medicine. Hope. — will also feature one of Tillemann-Dick’s physicians, Dr. Marie Budev, the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lung and Heart-Lung Transplant Program.
“To actually have a physician and one of her patients who has recovered and continued to pursue her passion is inspiring,” says Dr. Cynthia Romero, director of Eastern Virginia Medical School’s M. Foscue Brock Institute for Community and Global Health, which is one of the sponsors of the May 10th program.
“For our community in Hampton Roads to be introduced to not just the art of opera singing, but to have that human story of overcoming barriers and to use that message to inspire others to not give up hope — it’s going to be such a privilege,” Romero says.
Along with the Brock Institute, the program is sponsored by Jewish Family Service of Tidewater, LifeNet Health, WHRO Public Radio and the Chrysler Museum of Art. Every spring, Jewish Family Service (JFS) partners with other agencies to bring health issues of interest to the community, says Patti Wainger, who serves on JFS’s board.
The opportunity to get Tillemann-Dick and Budev to Hampton Roads was too good to pass up, Wainger says: “Their story is so big, we want to share it.” The program will have a local flare as well — Dr. Kamal Chemali, a neurologist and director of the Sentara Music and Medicine Center, will accompany Tillemann-Dick on the piano.
Raised in Denver, Colo., with 10 brothers and sisters, Charity Sunshine remembers getting worn out a little more quickly than her siblings, but she always pushed on. But in 2004, she found out she had a condition called idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension. The right side of her heart had enlarged to three-and-a-half times its normal size — “I call it the reverse Grinch effect,” Tillemann-Dick jokes today. But back then, without a lung transplant, she faced a 70 percent chance of dying within five years. She was also told to stop singing.
Singing, however, was part of her. She was in her first choir at age 3 and saw her first opera (Hansel and Gretel) at age 5. She wasn’t ready to let the disease, rare or not, get the best of her. The American Lung Association estimates that one in 100,000 to 1 million people have idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. It is most common among women in their mid-30s.
Tillemann-Dick had her first lung transplant five years after her diagnosis — by that time, her kidneys and liver had been damaged, and she had to have a heart valve repaired as well. She spent a month in a medically induced coma and three months total in the hospital, but eventually, she began to sing again.
Unfortunately, the donor lungs began to fail within just a few months. Doctors told Tillemann-Dick she might not survive, but in 2012, she received the gift of a second transplant, which turned out to be a “really wonderful fit,” she says. Incidentally, her donor, a 48-year-old Honduran woman named Flora, also loved to sing.
She talks about Flora’s lungs almost reverently. She is, naturally, a huge proponent of organ donation.
“There’s a lot of division in the world right now, but I breathe with the lungs of an immigrant,” she says. “My doctors are from all over the world, and are responsible for my life. I think the story of transplant — and my story — amplifies these greater human truths. With organ donation, we can each be responsible for life and death outcomes. When we have nothing left to give, we can give someone else a second chance.”
Rony Thomas, chief executive officer of LifeNet Health, an organ procurement organization and tissue bank headquartered in Virginia Beach, praises Tillemann-Dick for sharing her message and for speaking in favor of organ donation. She has sung about organ donation previously, and last fall, celebrated her donor by performing at the Cleveland Clinic with Esperanza Tufani, the donor’s daughter.
“Charity gives us the gift of her enthralling voice and music,” Thomas says. “Her inspirational story involves the gift of life, that of an organ donation from a selfless donor. This event will celebrate donors, recipients and transplant health professionals all over the world.”
Budev, who will take the stage with Tillemann-Dick at the Chrysler Museum, describes her patient as amazing, insightful and “the most resilient person I know.” She also says Tillemann-Dick is extremely empathetic, which has helped develop Budev’s own understanding of the empathy she believes is necessary in doctor-patient relationships. Budev plans to talk about empathy in medicine at the Music. Medicine. Hope. program, as well as to medical professionals at the Brock Institute the following day
Budev and Tillemann-Dick have spoken together several times during the many speaking engagements Tillemann-Dick has had. Over the years, the pair has developed a warm friendship through their experiences together. People will see, Budev says, what a remarkable woman Charity Sunshine is. Not only did she go through two double-lung transplants, but she also fought a battle with skin cancer a few years ago.
The cancer, likely a result of the immunosuppressant drugs she was on, required more surgery — this time to remove a tumor on her face, which required cutting a nerve and causing some scarring to her face. But in typical Charity Sunshine (her full first and middle given names) fashion, she managed to find a silver lining in the surgery.
It turned out that cutting the nerve in her face relieved some tension in her jaw, which has helped her to better reach the bottom range of her voice. “I’ve never sung better,” she says. “It shows there are linings. There’s joy in our sorrow and in life and death. There are all these impossibilities that open up new opportunities.”
For transplant patients, rejection is something that’s always looming. But at a certain point, Tilleman-Dick says, you realize it’s part of life. You keep going forward, living your own adventure, facing whatever challenges come up. And right now, she feels good.
“Knowing that we can learn and grow from those challenges,” she says, “there’s beauty in that.”
photos By Anne Roberts