For an opera singer, lungs are a musical instrument — like a Steinway to a pianist or a Stradivarius to a violinist. They expand and contract, carefully expelling air to create beautiful arias and emotional duets. Singers spend years training their lungs. To lose them is to face losing one’s dream, and, of course, one’s life.
“I always loved the heroines in opera. They were these beautiful, strong women in impossible situations,” Tillemann-Dick says. “When I got sick, it felt like I knew these stories and now I was living one, music and all. The question,” she says, “was how to outsmart the tragedy.”
Today Tillemann-Dick continues to perform — better than ever, she says — thanks to the lungs of a middle-aged Honduran woman.
Tillemann-Dick’s troubles stem from pulmonary hypertension, a rare, potentially fatal condition that affects the heart and lungs. She was 19 when she first noticed some classic symptoms of the disease: shortness of breath and fainting spells. But as a new college grad who had been offered a chance to study at the renowned Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, she wasn’t about to let a little trouble breathing stand in her way.
A politics major in college, the Denver native had assumed she would end up in government, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who represented California for nearly 30 years in the House of Representatives, and older brother Tomicah Tillemann, a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and now a senior adviser at the State Department.
But she’d been drawn to music and, in Budapest, she found her niche as a coloratura soprano — “one of those rare big voices that can hit really high notes in rapid succession,” says Tillemann-Dick, who had performed with the Colorado Children’s Choir and minored in music as an undergrad. Vocal coaches were eager to work with her and producers were eager to cast her. She dismissed the fainting spells as a byproduct of low blood pressure, and sang on.
It wasn’t until Tillemann-Dick returned to the United States in 2004 to visit family and have a routine physical that she found an explanation for the mysterious fainting: “Idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. Stage 4.”
The diagnosis was gibberish to her.
Pulmonary hypertension, the doctor explained, is a type of high blood pressure. Tiny arteries in the lungs harden, restricting blood flow, which forces the heart’s right ventricle to work harder and harder, eventually exhausting it.