For musicians, dealing with a chronic illness can mean the end of their career. This is the story of singer Margaret Felice, a Boston vocalist whose illness caused her to lose her breath mid-performance. After major surgery and a painful healing process, Margaret was able to overcome her difficulties and come out on the other side.
Losing (and Finding) My Breath
Managing chronic illness taught me to be prepared for many things: one thing I wasn’t prepared for as a professional vocalist that struck with great force was shortness of breath.
I know I have Crohn’s disease, but one August I found myself dealing with a brutal flare up, not knowing the source of the symptoms. In the months before I’d sung two Rodgers and Hammerstein concerts and appeared as the Countess in Marriage of Figaro. I’d grimace through rehearsal if pain flared, avoid eating before a show, and pray that my gut stayed quiet during the pianissimo moments. I smiled and bowed, and passed for a healthy person.
Not long after I returned from singing Mozart in Italy, I lost my breath leading hymns at church. I adjusted phrasing and kept a poker face. After a few minutes the music in front of me looked dimmer, and I was losing my balance. I finished a verse and slipped out of the sanctuary, leaving the organist to complete the hymn while I lay down on the floor to keep from passing out.
The following week I nearly fainted during a symphony rehearsal. My subsequent visit to a doctor revealed severe anemia, which I could add to my list of maladies as the cause of my breath problems and lightheadedness.
Soon, I reached a breaking point, and we determined that I needed surgery to have the damaged parts of my intestine removed. The procedure was scheduled for the day I was to sing in the chorus for a Verdi Requiem, and I’m proud to say that’s the only time throughout this ordeal that I had to cancel a gig.
Though the laparoscope made tiny incisions, my surgery was major, and recovery was difficult and painful. A few weeks after, I dared to attempt another church performance.
Though my breath was shallow and my abs were achy, I sang, and a bit of my life came back. Each note came from deep inside me and rode that glorious wave of breath out into the sanctuary. When I inhaled, breath filled me up, giving me energy and power, and I knew my disease would not define me.
Margaret Felice is a singer, educator, and writer living in Boston. Find her at www.margaretfelice.com