Soprano sings about importance of organ donation

04.18.2012

Source: CBSnews.com

By Seth Doane

(CBS News) About 113,000 Americans are waiting for new organs, but many will not live long enough to get them. To raise awareness of the need for organ donors, one young patient is raising her voice, sharing her remarkable story of survival.

Charity Tillemann-Dick was once told singing the music she loved could kill her. To an opera singer, there's little that's more precious than a good set of lungs. Her wait for a transplant was excruciating.

But last September, she debuted in a concert at Lincoln Center in New York after her first double lung transplant.

"When I go onto stage and when I sing, it makes me so happy because I'm sharing one of the things I value most," Tillemann-Dick told CBS News.

In February, CBS News scrubbed-in to meet Tillemann-Dick just a month after her second double-lung transplant. The 28-year-old opera singer invited the "CBS This Morning" team to Ohio's prestigious Cleveland Clinic to give a glimpse of her recovery.

Her strength on-stage seemed dwarfed by her spirit in her hospital room. Since she was a little girl, Charity Tillemann-Dick has been determined to sing. But her precious lungs began to fail her by age 20. She developed idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, which is when oxygen isn't properly absorbed by the body and forces the heart to work overtime.

Tillemann-Dick said, "I call it the reverse Grinch effect because my heart was three and a half sizes too big. And eventually it leads to heart failure."

In 2009, she needed an emergency transplant and got one. It worked until her body started to reject that first transplant.

Tillmann-Dick said, "I (went) to bed at night not sure whether I was going to wake up in the morning."

Her doctors knew she needed another set of lungs and soon but couldn't find ones that were the right size and blood-type.

"Every time the phone rings, you hope that maybe, maybe they've found a match," Tillemann-Dick said.

She was placed on advanced life support. And, finally, in late January, they did find a match.

Dr. Marie Budev, medical director of the transplant program at the Cleveland Clinic said, "Every patient will tell you that the first breath that they take after their transplant, when the breathing tube comes out, it's a breath that they'll never forget. It's the deepest breath of their life."

When asked if Tillemann-Dick would sing again, Budev said, "Oh, she will sing again. And she'll sing louder. And this will be the first person that will be singing with a second set of lungs that are not her own. That'll be groundbreaking - but she will sing again."

Tillemann-Dick said of organ donation, "It brings us closer to immortality because literally, a part of us goes on living after we're gone."

If she hadn't received the second organ transplant, Tillemann-Dick said she likely wouldn't be alive. Tillemann-Dick flat-lined while in a five-week coma and faced death several times, but says she's not looking in that direction. She said, "I don't think that death is something to be afraid of. We're all born, and we all live, and we die. It's what we do in between those (times) that defines us. Not when we die. It's how we lived."

To see Seth Doane's full report and more information about Tillemann-Dick and organ donation, watch the video on the CBSnews.com website.

For more information, visit the Pulmonary Hypertension Association website.

© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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