Opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick has survived two grueling, double-lung transplants.
The first ended with her body rejecting the new organs. The second has worked out just fine, and they pump enough air that she can now sing her beloved arias without a gasp.
To thank the woman whose organs gave her life and breath, Tillemann-Dick sang Tuesday with Esperanza Tufani, the 24-year-old daughter of her donor.
The two performed at a gathering of about 200 doctors and medical executives at a Cleveland health summit.
“We are all part of this big human family, and I think transplants show that better than anything,” Tillemann-Dick said. “I breathe because of someone who came to this country looking for a better life.”
She wrote “American Rainbow” to honor the Honduran immigrant who died of a stroke in 2012 and whose lungs now live inside Tillemann-Dick.
They were her second set of donated organs.
In 2009, while studying opera in Hungary, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which caused her heart to swell to dangerous levels. Without a transplant, doctors told her, she would likely die.
That same year, she received two new lungs. But she was left with “a tiny wisp of a voice” and her doctors advised her to not strain it.
She spent the next few months trying to regain her voice with the help of therapy.
Later, her body rejected the lungs, and she feared her life was over.
But in 2012, she received the lungs of Tufani’s mother and they have proved to be right at home inside Tillemann-Dick’s body.
The singer rediscovered her voice and completed a debut album titled “American Grace,” which appeared on Billboard’s classical charts in 2014.
She wrote to Tufani, thanking her for allowing her mother’s lungs to be donated. The two met and became friends. Tufani is an aspiring singer who manages a Chipotle franchise.
Singing with Tillemann-Dick was bittersweet. She was estranged from her mother after her parents divorced.
“I always wanted to have sang (sic) with my mom,” she said. “But I didn’t have that relationship with her. Getting to do that through Charity, it’s amazing. She doesn’t realize how much of an impact she’s had on my life.”