Charity Tillemann-Dick is a chart-topping opera singer. What makes her accomplishments even more amazing is she's singing with someone else's lungs. Through faith, she overcame major medical obstacles to once again lift her voice in song.
Opera singers need very strong lungs. So imagine how hard it would be to bounce back after a double lung transplant...not once, but twice.
Charity was well on her way to becoming a world-class opera singer when she was diagnosed at age 20 with a rare lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension. Doctors stunned her with the news that she had just five years to live.
Cleveland Clinic doctors said her only chance at a life was if she had both lungs replaced with healthy ones from a deceased donor: a double lung transplant. She agreed to the harrowing operation. Afterwards, she had to learn to walk, eat and sing all over again.
"It is a reminder that there's so much in life, and in this world, that can only be explained through grace,"Charity said.
"And I am so grateful for that grace that takes place in my life every day."
After accomplishing the impossible, singing opera after a double lung transplant, Charity enjoyed her time on stage again. However, her health started to fail. Her body was rejecting the lungs. Her only hope was yet another lung transplant.
Instead of giving up, Charity's faith remained strong.
"It's funny because God doesn't always answer the prayers that we think that we need, but somehow He always finds a way to remind me that He is there,"she said.
Once again, Cleveland Clinic surgeons performed a double lung transplant on Charity and she has to relearn life's basic tasks, including singing... again.
"It is a literal miracle every time I sing,"she said.
"And it was from the time I was diagnosed until the time I sang with my first owner's lungs, and now that I sing with my second owner's lungs."
Her "second owner" was a Honduran immigrant who died far too young.
"That she would give me everything that she had left of her life...it's so tremendous. It's so humbling,"Charity said.
Charity became friends with her second donor's adult daughter and even sang with her on stage. In a way, it was like a mother-daughter duet.
Although Charity's lungs were working well, she suffered another health setback. This time skin cancer on her face that required a series of surgeries to remove the tumors.
Charity details her amazing story of triumph in her book, The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts.
"The rise was so tremendous, and then the fall again was so hard, and I feel like it encapsulates what life is for all of us and what all of us want,"she said.
"We all want another chance."
Charity uses her platform as a way to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation. Sadly, only 20 percent of all donated lungs are healthy enough for transplantation, although in the last decade more organs are becoming available from the tragic increase in opioid overdose deaths.
Dr. Marie Budev, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic's Lung Transplant and Heart and Lung Transplant program:
"We've seen deaths in young people, the median age is 35 years old, who've gone on to pass away,"she said.
"They have generally very healthy organs. These are not people who have heart disease, stroke, other reasons why they become organ donors."
Dr. Budev said about a thousand of these otherwise healthy lungs are infected with Hepatitis-C, and because of that, can't be transplanted. However, she said that might change. Research shows direct-acting antiviral agents which recently came out on the market carry a nearly 100 percent cure rate.
That means lungs infected with Hepatitis-C could be transplanted into people who don't have the disease. Dr. Budev said even though the recipient would almost certainly contract Hepatitis-C from the donor's lung, the virus can be cured with the effective, new treatment.
More study needs to be done on the ethics and finances of the move, but if accepted,
we "would be adding a thousand organs to the North American donor pool that weren't there before,"Dr. Budev said.
"That would be a thousand lives we could save."
Dr. Budev said the simplest way to become an organ donor is by registering on the UNOS website, which stands for United Network for Organ Sharing. She recommends telling family members.
"I think if you talk about it before it would ever happen, and make this known, and make your wishes known, just imagine the amount of relief when this question is posed to your family, if it should ever be posed, how much relief they would have knowing that they're following your wishes,"she said.