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The indefatigable spirit of Charity Sunshine Tilleman Dick

by Mary-Ann Brandon
    How do we explain the myriad of responses to adversity in life?  A traumatic event that propels one person’s descent into ruin can be the catalyst for growth in the next.  One year ago, a brave young opera singer wondered if she would ever sing again.  This is her remarkable tale…
    Charity Sunshine Tilleman Dick is one of eleven children and is the granddaughter of Huerfano County resident, Nancy Dick, our state’s first female lieutenant governor. 
    It was her oldest sister who took a four year old Charity to see her first opera.  This initial experience caused her to have a deep emotional experience, creating the notion that opera was going to be her life.  Her determination and work ethic led her to develop her talent throughout her childhood including singing with the Colorado Children’s Chorale and ultimately gaining a music minor at Regis College.  Interestingly, her college career began with a goal to become an attorney.  Nancy Dick told me recently she advised her granddaughter that “anyone can be a lawyer, not everyone can be an opera singer.”  With this advice Charity started a petition drive on the campus to institute a music minor program and was the first person to graduate with this degree.  She admits that music is not a pragmatic choice and is glad for her education, feeling it is important to have something to fall back on. 
    In her own words “talent is discipline and training.”  She is a clearly confident when she speaks but is firm that she is not impressed by her own natural ability telling me “it is amazing what we can do when we push ourselves, genius is as much about work ethic [as talent].”
    At 19 years of age she traveled to Hungary to study at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music.  Her first serious opera teacher praised her beautiful and unusual voice but admonished that she needed three things to happen in her life before she would be able to fully develop as an artist.  They were:
    1. Fall in love
    2. Wait 10 years
    3. Get sick,  (Charity adds work, work, work)
    A short time later she came home to the States.  She began to feel ill and was diagnosed with Stage IV, idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a one in a million diagnosis.  Sadly there are few treatments for this disease and most patients die within 2-5 years of diagnosis.  Still, she persevered,  not wanting to be sick, she sought treatment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  She was given a lifesaving regimen that involved wearing a pump that injected medicine straight into her system.  She found herself having to mix her own medicine, a process that took an hour every day.  And yet she forged ahead…
    She won a fellowship to go to Italy and a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Hungary so went back to Europe.  She continued to perform with her four and a half pound medical pump strapped to her body, cleverly disguised under her costumes.  Every day she injected the medication that allowed her to stay alive but caused serious side effects.
    In February of 2008 she returned home to attend the funeral of her mother’s father, a Holocaust survivor.  After the funeral she returned to Europe.   In April of that same year came the news that her father had been killed in a car accident.  Fearing for her health at high altitude, she was advised not to go home to Denver, but ignored warnings feeling that she had to be with her family.  The combination of altitude and grief is what she feels precipitated her most serious medical decline, so severe in fact that she canceled all of her performances  scheduled for the summer of 2008.  She continued to perform but by March of 2009 her voice and health had deteriorated to the point that she had to stop traveling and singing professionally. 
    By September of that year a set of lungs had been located when a woman from Texas died in a car accident.  Charity was rushed to the Cleveland Clinic where doctors were successful in replacing her now thoroughly worn out lungs.  The operation required 40 quarts of blood.  She was in a coma for more than one month.  Just one year ago she was all of 90 pounds when she was taken off a respirator as doctors held their breath hoping that she wouldn’t suffer heart failure.  She was unable to make any sound come out of her mouth at first, but eventually a gurgled rasp came and this was all it took to give her the impetus to find her missing voice.
    Five short months after leaving the Cleveland Clinic she returned for a triumphant performance for the medical team who performed her surgery.  Proof of this astonishing performance can be found on You Tube.  It is a surreal experience when watching this healthy, glowing young woman open her mouth and sing with no indication of what she had been through just months earlier.  It is a performance that would make Dale Carnegie proud.
    She now shares organ donation as a passion in her life along with music.  Her grandmother, Nancy, sponsored a bill that made Colorado just the second state in the union to adopt driver donor legislation. 
    Today, Charity keeps her family tradition of service work alive as she is a national spokeswoman for Regenerative Medicine.  Her rousing appearance at this year’s TEDMED conference can also be seen on You Tube.
    Charity has met all but one of the requirements of her first opera teacher.  She’s fallen in love,  gotten sick, and at age 26 has just a few years until she’s “waited 10.”  After expressions of profound gratitude for her donor family, the doctors and her family, she ended our interview with a succinct statement that is both a positive reaffirmation and powerful admonition; “Regardless of the cards that life deals you, it’s how you play them that matters.” 

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