Soprano and alumna of the Peabody Institute Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick spoke about her new memoir, The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts, at Barnes & Noble on Thursday, Oct. 12. She shared her experiences being a professional singer after receiving a double lung transplant and fighting cancer.
The book is organized as an opera in three acts. It focuses on four types of encounters with love: the love between a mother and daughter, a man and woman, a doctor and their craft and a singer and their music.
When she was twenty years old, Tillemann-Dick was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a rare disease that elevates artery pressure. She discussed the implications of her diagnosis.
“The disease happens when there’s a thickening in the endothelium of the lungs,” Tillemann-Dick said. “It is a one in a million kind of disease.”
The disease forces the heart to work harder to pump blood to flow through the lungs. This caused Tillemann-Dick’s heart to grow to an abnormal size.
“The right side of my heart is three and a half times bigger than it was supposed to be,” she said. “I was like the anti-Grinch because my heart was so big.”
Tillemann-Dick had left her home in Denver and was studying opera in Budapest, but she moved back to the U.S. to receive treatment in Baltimore, where she attended and graduated from the Peabody Institute.
“I found a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital who was running a trial that I really wanted to be in,” Tillemann-Dick said. “The Peabody thing fell into place.”
The treatment option Tillemann-Dick pursued was a dual bilateral lung transplant. This meant that she would have to sing with a set of someone else’s lungs.
Due to her transplant, Tillemann-Dick’s immune system was severely compromised and, as a result, she developed skin cancer. Because of her compromised immune system, she avoids touching other people’s hands and instead greets people with a fist bump or by shaking their wrist.
“A cold for you is at least a hospital visit for me and maybe rejection and maybe dying,” Tillemann-Dick said. “I am very aware of how fragile my life is. But I am still alive fourteen years after I was diagnosed with a condition where I was supposed to live two to five years tops.”
Tillemann-Dick’s story has been covered by news sources such as The Washington Post and CNN. She also gave a TEDMED talk in 2010 that has over half a million views on TED’s website.
She has also performed in venues across the world, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City, the National Symphony Hall in Budapest and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“I’m doing what I love,” Tillemann-Dick said. “I am married to the most wonderful man. I sing, I write, I tell stories and I create. At the end of the day, I think that’s why we’re all here. It’s our birthright to bring beauty into the world.”