News | January 14, 2020

Bower School of Music & the ArtsFeaturedNews

Student triumphs over illness with a song in her heart

Music education major overcomes obstacles in her greatest performance

Students take many different paths to Florida Gulf Coast University, but few are as frightening as the one that led Lisa Hamman here.

A lifelong Cape Coral resident and 2013 North Fort Myers High School graduate, Hamman originally left home to attend Florida State University and — gifted with a beautiful, professionally trained singing voice — the pursuit of a music degree. Things went great for a couple of years, but fate had a different plan.

A shocking diagnosis of leukemia her junior year would lead Hamman back to Southwest Florida for ongoing cancer treatment and, most of all, support from a close family. As she recovered, a stroke she suffered due to one of her chemotherapy drugs would create another unforeseen health obstacle, as would the chemo-ravaged hips that force her to walk with a limp and will soon require replacement.

But despite all the despair that life was throwing at her, Hamman had an inner strength she could fall back on to help lift her spirits:

Photo shows FGCU music education student Lisa Hamman
“I remember being in the grocery store with my mother as a young girl, singing up and down the aisles,” Lisa Hamman says. Photo: James Greco/FGCU

The songs she always carried in her heart, even when she was too sick to sing them.

That’s how a talented coloratura lyric soprano deals with a potentially life-threatening situation. And that’s what helped Hamman almost seamlessly transfer from FSU back home and to familiar mentors at FGCU and the Bower School of Music & the Arts, where — now cancer-free and returning to peak vocal form — she gave a solo performance in November at the U. Tobe Recital Hall (see video below).

Technically, that stage appearance was her junior recital to meet requirements for a music education degree. Personally, it represented another big step in Hamman’s triumphant comeback from the worst kind of adversity.

To understand what this young woman has been through during the past few of her 25 years, it’s best to start at the beginning.

A melodious youth

Lisa Hamman has always been a singer of sorts, back to her childhood days. “I used to sing all the time,” she said. “I remember being in the grocery store with my mother as a young girl, singing up and down the aisles.”

She sang with the youth choir at Cape Elementary School in third grade, ascending to soloist by fourth grade. Later, while attending the arts magnet school at North Fort Myers High, young Hamman got a chance to work closely for two years with Dr. Jeanie Darnell, music professor and head of vocal studies at FGCU.

“She has always been a superb student, and very serious about her preparation and artistry,” said Darnell, herself an internationally acclaimed soprano and voice instructor.

Another member of FGCU’s music faculty also was aware of young Hamman’s potential. “When she was a student at North Fort Myers, I knew of her great skill as a singer,” said Trent Brown, associate professor of music and director of choral activities at FGCU. “She had already developed a strong vocal technique.”

With a dream of performing in musical theater, Hamman auditioned for that program at FSU, but, “I wasn’t a strong enough dancer.” Steered toward voice performance, Hamman had previously auditioned for and was accepted to that program at FSU, but she had to audition again in the spring of 2015 to gain formal admittance.

The scare out of nowhere

It was just before spring break of her junior year in 2017 that Hamman noticed swelling in her lymph nodes while doing her warmup exercises prior to singing — a habit she does religiously, and one that might well have saved her life because it revealed an early warning sign of her illness. Ready to embark on a multistate tour with a Seminole choral group, she decided to make a doctor’s appointment at the campus wellness center.

“The triage nurse who first examined me didn’t think it was a big deal, but my voice teacher insisted that I keep the doctor’s appointment,” Hamman said. “I was tested for mono, which came up negative, and the lab work all came back normal. The doctor said it was fine to go on the trip.”

But during the tour, Hamman’s body starting swelling throughout and became painful. “The funny thing is, I felt really sick, but my voice sounded the same, which is really weird because it usually doesn’t when you’re sick,” she said.

After the tour-ending, 22-hour bus ride from New York state to Tallahassee, Hamman took off her boots and noticed a rash on the bottom of her feet, then a rash appeared later on her hands. She didn’t feel any better, and scheduled another doctor appointment. “During opera chorus in the spring, I would just crash after rehearsal,” she said. “I called my mom and told her I didn’t know if I could continue. I felt like I would just fall off the stage.”

The day of Hamman’s doctor appointment, she awoke at 5 a.m. with violent nausea. As a migraine sufferer, she was used to getting sick in the stomach, but when she felt migraine symptoms without the headache, she knew something was wrong.

Hamman called home, and her parents were soon making the six-hour drive from Cape Coral to Tallahassee so they could go to the doctor with their daughter. “Within a week, my blood count had gone from normal to a skyrocketing white-cell blood count and a plummeting platelet count,” she said, recalling that she went to class that Wednesday, sang, and completed a piano midterm.

Next was a bone-marrow biopsy, which proved difficult for Hamman because the “hospital where I had it does them when the patient is awake,” she said. “It’s quite terrifying because they literally rev up a drill and get into the back of your pelvis to draw marrow. When it was over, I broke down and cried.”

The oncologists were doubtful someone Hamman’s age had cancer, and the computer analysis of her blood in the hospital revealed nothing. “But a person who backchecked my blood results by hand found blast cells,” Hamman said. “That meant leukemia.”

Life goes a different direction

Specifically, Hamman was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer that progresses quickly.

“My parents wanted me to go to Moffitt (Cancer Center) in Tampa, so I was transported there,” she said. “It was a 4 ½-hour ambulance ride.”

Soon along to support Lisa and her parents was her older brother, Brian, an FGCU alum (‘04, Communication), the university’s 2015 Alumnus of Distinction, a part-time member of the Alumni Relations team, and chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners as District 4 representative. “He caught a ride with Matt Caldwell (former Florida House representative, FGCU alum and chairman of the FGCU Agribusiness Advisory Council) up to Tallahassee and drove my car home,” Lisa recalled.

Photo shows FGCU music education student Lisa Hamman
Lisa Hamman gave a solo recital last November at FGCU.

When Brian Hamman learned about his younger sister’s illness, he was “devastated.”

“I felt awful for Lisa knowing the fight she had in front of her,” he said. “My heart also broke for my parents. My wife and I have two children, and I couldn’t imagine ever getting that news. We have a very close family, and we just surrounded Lisa with love and did all we could to fight alongside her.”

Lisa Hamman went into remission after a month of chemo at Moffitt, and the family decided in May 2017 to bring her home and continue the next phase of treatment at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, which had just opened its new building on the HealthPark campus south of Fort Myers. “They specialize in pediatric oncology there, and the doctors agreed that as a young adult, I would respond better to pediatric care,” Hamman said.

But while she was winning her leukemia fight, Hamman suffered another setback when one of the drugs used to treat her triggered a stroke. “Just a one-percent chance of that happening,” she said. “It started in my tongue and progressed to where I couldn’t even talk. I spent five days in the intensive-care unit. I was scared.”

The stroke eventually numbed much of her body, but after a few days in the ICU, she began to recover, then returned home. At that point, the pursuit of her life’s passion was limited to “singing around the house for hours.”

“Chemo and steroids gave me bad acid reflux, which destroys the voice,” Hamman said. “I had pretty much recovered entirely from the stroke, but when I sang in the shower after I got home, I sounded so wretched. It was awful. I went into mini-depression mode, but managed to calm down, and just stopped singing. I decided I just needed to rest and take care of my voice.”

A new direction

By January 2018, Hamman had progressed to the maintenance phase of her leukemia treatment. Her doctors gave her the OK to resume taking classes, but told her she “might want to stay local, because we need you here every two weeks,” she said.

At that point, Hamman turned to the two Southwest Florida voice professors who knew her best. “I emailed both Dr. Darnell and Dr. Brown, who had worked with the choir at North quite a bit, because they knew what had been going on with me,” she said. “They took me in like mama and daddy bird.”

While Darnell and Brown made her return to school easier, there was nothing they could do to speed Hamman’s return to voice form, at least from the physical perspective. “It was rough getting back,” Hamman said. “I thought it was mostly muscle atrophy that made breathing so hard, from all the bed rest and sitting around, but effects from chemotherapy had affected me, too. In fact, I just wrote a 10-page research paper for my vocal pedagogy class, and the topic was ‘Chemotherapy Effects on the Voice.’

“I had made great strides vocally at Florida State,” she continued. “I had gotten to a place I felt really good about, but when I tried those same techniques, they weren’t working. I couldn’t feel my face.”

The chemo caused nerve damage to Hamman’s vocal chords and diaphragm. She had little stamina. She was hoarse. “There was a lack of control over my singing I had never experienced before. I had to struggle to get my voice under control for the first time in my life. So I decided to give myself a break. I couldn’t over-sing.”

Eventually, she resumed with shorter practice sessions and rebuilt her muscle memory on breathing technique. “Once I stopped the chemo in August 2019, it got better immediately,” Hamman said. “They tell me it could take up to a year for the effects to go away, but now I can feel it again. It’s coming back.”

On to the next phase

At FGCU, Hamman switched her degree track to music education, which she calls a “more practical choice for my future, given that teachers usually have good health benefits, and me not knowing what my health might be like in the future.”

During her recovery, the music faculty at FGCU helped Hamman get back on the educational and performance stages as best they could, through the medical setbacks and weekly commitments to outpatient hospital treatments. “Everyone there has been so very understanding of the medical aspect I’ve been dealing with,” she said.

That included giving the now-senior a slight delay before she made her junior recital performance, until she was physically and mentally ready. That moment came this past Nov. 15, when she took the U. Tobe stage accompanied on piano by professor Mary Seal and flutist Jacob Cowley.

The first half of her recital included French and German art songs, a baroque piece by Bach and an Italian aria by Mozart, while the English portion of her performance featured two songs — “A Night of Dreams” and “You’re Making My Dream Come True” — written and published by her great-grandparents. “It was stuff you would hear on the radio back then, like a ballad … jazzy, romantic pieces,” Hamman said.

The journey continues

She plans to graduate after student teaching in fall 2021, and then, “I’ll be seeing where life takes me,” Hamman said. The double hip replacement looms, as do the ongoing cancer checkups. But in the wake of her junior recital performance, Hamman already has earned the admiration of those who know best what she has endured.

Photo shows concert poster
The poster for Lisa Hamman’s recital.

“Fighting cancer is not just a physical battle, it’s mental,” her brother Brian said. “There are some really great days and some horrible setbacks along the way. Watching Lisa go through that and not give up was inspiring. I’m so proud of the mental toughness and endurance she showed in the face of tremendous pain. There were so many times I wished that I could take some of it for her, just to give her a break. But with the strength of God holding her up, she survived it. She is an amazing young woman with a very bright future, and I’m proud to be her big brother.”

Her longtime mentor, professor Darnell, applauds a student she calls “special.”

“She is a wonderfully talented singer and actress,” Darnell said. “She is generous as a performer; she gives her whole heart in the moment when presenting. She has tremendously good character in every way and holds herself to high standards. She regularly inspires me, her voice teacher. Regardless of the difficulties she has endured, with all the treatments and damage incurred by the chemotherapy and medications, she consistently has been my most dedicated, prepared and dependable student.”

To professor Brown, what stands out is “her constant positivity and remarkable drive.”

“If she has a stretch of time when she is ill, or having mobility difficulty, she never lets it dim her radiance,” Brown said. “She has never sulked or come to school without a grin, or uttered a negative word, and if there’s anyone who would have a pass to do so, I think it would be her. But she carries herself in a spirit full of life in everything she does. Every interaction with faculty and peers is genuinely filled with grace. And her music is strengthened by maturity, too. Some musicians in their early 20s do not have enough life experience to really express some of the complexities in art music. Lisa does, and she channels this in her music. We are fortunate to get to be a part of her journey.”

Hamman realizes her journey may not include landing her dream role, Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” or her second-favorite, Ariel of “The Little Mermaid” in that Broadway show (“’Part of Your World’ from ‘Little Mermaid’ was my first solo; I did it for my elementary choir audition,” she said).

“If I end up teaching, I will still perform. If I start out performing, I will certainly teach in my later life,” Hamman said. “Singing has always been my emotional release; my absolute internal being is tied to my singing. It’s how I express myself. I’m a storyteller. I thrive on communicating messages to people.”

She’s very thankful for what FGCU has done during a personal struggle that has “been hard, with a lot of prayer.”

“FGCU has helped me return from where I’ve been, readjust and put myself back together,” Hamman said. “Here, I feel happy to be home, like I’m working with family. You feel supported to where you succeed and excel. The classes are small, and the teachers are super supportive.

“I wanted to try FSU for the big-college experience and to get out of my hometown, but after being up there, I missed my family. It has been a blessing to come here and rehabilitate myself.”