Dia DiCristino knew she wasn’t crazy. The aspiring opera singer had just returned home in the fall of 2002 after a year in England when she began to experience strange symptoms.
Her vision was blurring, her speech was slurring and she found that she was feeling dizzy nearly all the time.
The 23-year-old knew her problems had to be connected, even though doctors at a Paoli-area hospital had told her otherwise. Frustrated and fearing the worst, DiCristino met with a neurosurgeon at the University of Pennsylvania just before Thanksgiving and found there was indeed a cause for her complaints.
She had a large cyst pressing on her brain’s occipital lobes, which control visual perception, and on the cerebellum, which coordinates movement. Doctors told DiCristino they would have to perform surgery in early December. At the time, the native of Seventh and Bigler streets did not realize she was about to embark on the roughest journey of her life.
"At first, I was just relieved to find out that there was a real problem and that I wasn’t crazy after all," DiCristino says. "Still, it was a little hard to take. I was in the middle of a great period in my life and certainly didn’t expect something like this to pop up."
A mezzo soprano, DiCristino was enjoying success as a head cantor at Immaculata College, where she was due to graduate in May 2003 with degrees in music and theology. In England, she had studied under Wynford Evans, who was grooming her to eventually sing for the Royal Opera Company. In other words, the future was looking extremely promising.
"Even though it’s not the most popular of career choices, I’ve always loved the opera," DiCristino says. She traced her enthusiasm for the genre back to high school at Girard Academic Music Program, where she first considered a career in singing.
DiCristino was awarded the prestigious "Alto Award" two years in a row at GAMP. In 1998, she was chosen to tour Italy with a small ensemble, whose trip culminated in an impromptu performance inside the Vatican shortly before a Mass was held.
DiCristino cantored for local churches even as her career was taking off at Immaculata, where she sang extensively in recitals and was to star in a few of the school’s large-scale productions. That is, of course, before the cyst entered her life.
Her first surgery was performed as scheduled in December 2002. Problems quickly arose, however, as the wound began to leak a few weeks later. DiCristino was rushed back and forth to the hospital because of complications over the next six months, during which time she also underwent seven more surgeries.
She chronicled her ordeal in a documentary recorded via Web cam. DiCristino called it "The Year of the Cyst."
"The surgeries were grueling," she says. "They implanted shunts in my brain, which my body rejected, and as a result I wound up leaking spinal fluid at one point. I had to have another surgery because the cyst actually re-accumulated."
The periods of hospitalization and frequent surgeries took a toll on the young woman, who says the experiences have shaken her Roman Catholic beliefs. "I just could never understand why this happened. I was in [the hospital] month after month, and over time I just became frozen to the Church and to the faith. I just don’t pray anymore."
With her family in South Philadelphia, DiCristino has relied on her friends from school to shuttle her to and from the hospital. Often, her friends skip classes just to spend time with her as she lays in her hospital bed.
"An experience like this shows you who your true friends are. I’ve been blessed," DiCristino says. "My friends do these things without asking anything in return. They just do it because they care."
The third of four children, DiCristino also has benefited from the dedication of her oldest brother, who often made daily trips to the hospital to raise her spirits.
Although she has enjoyed a wealth of emotional support, the cost of her medical procedures has left DiCristino nearly broke as she struggles to pay off the rest of her college education. She intends to graduate this May, and in the face of all that she has already endured, is unlikely to allow financial troubles to prevent her from graduating.
In fact, she already has plans for the next act of her life.
The New York Metropolitan Opera has a program for young artists that DiCristino hopes to enter next fall. The program provides hopefuls with coaches, opportunities to perform and an annual stipend as they strive toward their ultimate goal of joining the Met. The tryouts aren’t until April, which is why she is now just focusing on two goals: getting better and growing her hair back.
After growing her hair out for two years, DiCristino awoke from her first surgery to find that her doctors had given her a radical new hairdo — they had shaved one side of her head. "I don’t know why they only shaved one side of it," she says with a laugh. "What was I supposed to do, just comb it over?"
Her follicular challenges aside, DiCristino hopes she is now able to live her life without the worry of any more surgeries.
"The past year of my life has been like Murphy’s Law — anything that could go wrong has. I just want to be done with it all and concentrate on my dreams."
Anyone interested in donating to Dia DiCristino to help her finish college can visit her Web site at www.kickme.to/opera