Singing with another woman's lungs

Story highlights

  • Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick, an opera singer, has had two separate double lung transplants
  • She and her donor's daughter have struck up a friendship

(CNN)This fall, renowned soprano Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick will inhale deeply, filling her new transplanted lungs with air, and sing. Performing alongside her will be Esperanza Tufani, a 24-year-old restaurant manager in Ohio. Tufani's mother was the donor for Tillemann-Dick's lungs.

"It will be a coming together for what was and what is," Tillemann-Dick said. She received the lungs of Tufani's mother, an immigrant from Honduras, in a transplant operation in 2012. Tufani's mother died of a stroke at 48.
The transplant sparked a friendship between the opera singer and the young woman she met a year after her surgery.
    "Singing with Charity ... it's just something I can't really describe. The thought of me singing with my mother would be amazing, but since that's not possible, still in a way getting to do that through Charity is just ... it's just an incredible feeling," Tufani said.

    Overcoming the odds

    Now 34, Tillemann-Dick has gotten fame and acclaim alongside the physical and emotional toll of two separate double lung transplants.
    In 2004, she was diagnosed with advanced idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a rare and potentially fatal condition that affects the heart and lungs. At the time, she was studying at the renowned Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary. Her doctors told her to stop singing, but Tillemann-Dick refused. She attempted to avoid a transplant by having a prescribed liquid medication pumped directly to her heart through a tube in her chest, 24 hours a day.
    Tillemann-Dick wanted to keep the lungs she had worked tirelessly for years to train. Her vocal cords could be damaged in surgery, and there was a very real chance she would never sing again. Even if the procedure went perfectly, she would have to learn how to sing with the new lungs.
    But in 2009, her condition deteriorated drastically, and Tillemann-Dick could no longer avoid a transplant. In the nearly 14-hour surgery, she had 40 quarts of blood transfused into her body. She was put in a medically induced coma for 34 days.
    "After I woke up from my first surgery, I had this tremendous guilt and sadness for my donor," Tillemann-Dick said of her first transplant in 2009. "I felt terrible for their family and for everything that they had endured."
    Then, her body rejected the transplant after years of brutal recovery. Tillemann-Dick was almost certain she was going to die. "Second transplants are very rare," she said. Six months in the hospital waiting for a donor were excruciating, and she started having conversations with God as she prepared to die.
    "I didn't feel like my life was ready to be over," she said.
    But in 2012, she matched with another registered donor: Tufani's mother, Flora Brown. This time, the lungs took, and within a week of the procedure, she was breathing on her own.
    "But when I woke up from the second transplant, it was different," she said. "I felt this intense, all-encompassing gratitude for this family and these people and this woman whose life I was carrying forward."
    She was out of the hospital in March 2012 and had her first performance at the Indianapolis Opera in May, just months later.