An encore for an opera singer who survived two double lung transplants

Opera singer lung transplant
Opera singer lung transplant 02:30

NEW YORK -- What would you do if you were told you might have to give up the thing you were born to do? Here's the story of a singer who got her second and third wind. 

Charity Tillemann-Dick loves all things opera. And her life reads like the plot of a grand opera. 

"It makes a hot, gorgeous mess of a vehicle for human joy and suffering -- and tragedy," she said. 

Diagnosed at age 20 with pulmonary arterial hypertension, or high blood pressure in the lungs, Tillemann-Dick's heart was more than three times larger than normal. But she couldn't imagine a life without song. 

As her career flourished, Tillemann-Dick's body deteriorated until a 2009 lung transplant saved her life. She was 26. 

"It was a rough go," she said. 

That's an understatement. Her new book titled "The Encore" describes a grueling medical journey. 

Charity Tillemann-Dick
Charity Tillemann-Dick performs. CBS

"It was two months before I could breathe on my own," Tillemann-Dick said. "There is this wisp of a voice, but it was something, and so I started singing every day."

Act two: three years later — Tillemann-Dick's body rejects the lungs. 

"I had this sorta conversation with God," she said. "And I'd made my peace with everyone. I thought it was the end. And the next morning, I got a call."

Dr. Marie Budev, director of the Heart Lung Transplant Program at the Cleveland Clinic, had found a match. 

"I had my husband on one side and my mother on the other," Tillemann-Dick said. "And I squeezed their hands and I said, 'You know, we've done this once. We can do this again.'"

"The risk for rejection, especially chronic rejection, is always there," Budev said. "But she just goes on. Every day is a chance to discover something new to bring a smile to someone's face, to celebrate your donor." 

This fall, the opera singer celebrated her donor by performing at the Cleveland Clinic with her friend Esperanza Tufani, the donor's daughter. Tufani credited her "determination" and "warrior spirit." 

Tillemann-Dick said her donor "gives me voice."  

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook