Opera Soprano Sings Again After Double Lung Transplant and Open Heart Surgery

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Charity Tillemann-Dick, a world renowned opera soprano, was diagnosed in 2002 at age 20 with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension, a serious condition characterized by abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs that often leads to both heart and lung failure. Last month, after receiving a double lung transplant and having open heart surgery that saved her life, the young woman sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “O Mio Babbino Caro” to her doctors and nurses at the Cleveland Clinic.

Ms. Tillemann-Dick, whose full name is Charity Sunshine, kept positive about her disease and the difficult treatment that followed. She even continued to sing on international stages with heavy makeup to disguise her sallow skin. “When you’re facing a challenge like this, it’s important to plow through and do the best that you can and do what you want to do that’s good.”

Idiopathic Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (IPAH) is thought to only affect about 5-10% of the population. It affects women more often than men. In many cases, the cause is unknown, but it is thought to have a genetic component.

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Pulmonary hypertension is caused by a narrowing of the small arteries of the lung which makes it harder for the right side of the heart to circulate the blood to the lungs. Overtime, the right side of the heart may become enlarged and fail, called cor pulmonale. Symptoms include chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

There is no known cure for IPAH, but several forms of treatment are available to control symptoms, such as calcium channel blockers and diuretics. Some patients are put on blood thinners to reduce the risk of blood clots.

Overall prognosis for the condition is poor; morbidity and mortality rates vary based on degree of the condition, the age of the patient, and the ability to respond to therapy. When treatment with medication fails, suitable candidates may be helped by a lung or heart/lung transplant.

After her own surgery, Charity began retraining her voice by humming and progressed to show tunes as her body strengthened. She has performed already this summer at the Swiss and Hungarian embassies. Dr. Ken McCurry, who led her nine-hour operation, said "It's always gratifying when you see a patient recover, but to have a patient recover this quickly and to this extent -- it is stunning.”

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