Opera singer finds her forte as the face of UCLA Health's blood donation program

Terri Hill organizes blood drives by day and performs with the LA Opera at night.

In Italian, the word “forte” means to sing loudly, which is something UCLA Health’s Terri Hill has done since she was old enough to talk.

As a member of Los Angeles Opera’s chorus since 1993, Hill has performed some of the world’s most beautiful music, sharing the stage with Placido Domingo and other operatic legends.

Hill also shines in her other role, as a blood donation recruiter for UCLA Health’s highly regarded Blood and Platelet Center.

Hill’s responsibilities with UCLA Health include setting up and organizing blood drives — often in high school gymnasiums – speaking at recruitment meetings, promoting the donor program and recruiting donors for the blood donation site.

It’s not as glamorous as her night job at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, perhaps; but Hill approaches her work at UCLA Health with the same passion and creativity.

“Creating every blood drive is like a performance,” Hill says. “You’re creating your baby and it’s exciting when it’s a success.”

Hill, who sings soprano, has just concluded performing in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” LA Opera’s first full opera since the pandemic closure. “It was very exciting for all of us,” she says. “We didn’t know if the company would survive or if the season would be continued.”

Pandemic precautions within the opera company are strict, Hill noted: Members must be vaccinated, and patrons must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test prior to entering the theater. Members are tested twice weekly and must wear N95 masks right up until performance time. The air ventilation system in the nearly 60-year-old music center was replaced as well, she says.

“They have a lot at stake,” Hill says. “They’ve really gone above and beyond to make sure that we are all safe.”

Opening night

Because of the backup at the Port of Los Angeles, parts of the set sent over from Spain never reached the opera company; sets had to be built from scratch, an undertaking that involved union members working around the clock before opening night.

“It’s been a real feat to get this production off the ground,” Hill says. “It was an exciting evening on opening night.”

Hill had at least one fan in attendance that night — Sarah Dry, MD, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UCLA Health and a colleague of Hill’s.

“It’s really fun to see people’s interests outside of work,” says Dr. Dry, a season ticketholder with LA Opera. “I think it’s so wonderful that Terri has found a way to continue her gift for singing in an exciting, impactful and meaningful way despite her very busy job at UCLA.”

Dr. Dry describes “Il Trovatore” as “creative and beautifully artistic.”

“It was so lovely to be back at the opera in person. I had forgotten how much I missed that experience,” she says.

She notes that several UCLA Health physicians are season ticketholders. “There’s a lot of UCLA presence at the opera,” she says.

Terri Hill's performance skills translate to her role as donation coordinator for the UCLA Health Blood and Platelet Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Childhood dream

From the time she was able to talk, there was no doubt Hill would one day become a musician. She started violin lessons at age 8 and vocal lessons as a teen and soon began winning competitions and earning scholarships. She left her home in Ashland, Ore., to attend Cal State Northridge because of the music school’s reputation, earning a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance. Soon after graduation, Hill auditioned for the LA Opera chorus.

“There are not a lot of positions that open up. I was lucky to get in,” she says.

Hill has appeared in more than 60 productions with the opera company. In 2003, she sang the role of Marie in the world premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra.” Other roles have included the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (her favorite opera) with Opera San Jose and Opera Carolina.

Throughout her career, Hill has continued to win competitions, which has opened doors to other opportunities. She also sings with a small, American ensemble based in Switzerland called The Singing Waiters.

“I was a professional bohemian for about 15 years,” Hill recounts. “I was going to Europe, singing at the opera and whatever other gigs I could get in there, but I wasn’t working a real, professional job because when you’re an artist you’re always on the go.”

Hill made ends meet waiting tables and working in retail, which was “fun for a while,” she says. “But then I wanted to have more. I wanted a home and a solid benefits plan.”

A colleague told her about an opening for a blood donation recruiter with a local medical group, and she thought it might be a good fit.

“I took the leap, and I was very successful at that,” Hill says.

Found her niche

In 2017, Hill joined UCLA Health and has been happily recruiting donors ever since.

As a trained performer from childhood, Hill never thought anything could be as rewarding as singing. “I was really surprised when I got into blood donation recruitment that it could be fulfilling, also,” she says.

Although the roles are wildly different, Hill sees commonalities.

“The performer side of me is an asset as a blood recruiter. I do a lot of public speaking with different groups, sometimes talking with media, sometimes it’s with our own staff,” she says. “Having that ‘no fear,’ outgoing personality is definitely a benefit. I think performers are part salesperson, and blood recruiting is definitely a sales position.”

The ability to project her voice is always helpful in an auditorium crowded with teens waiting to donate, she notes with a chuckle.

“Terri’s outgoing personality is perfect for the roles she has in helping people create and set up blood drives and encouraging people to donate at our blood donation sites,” Dr. Dry says.

Last year, Hill helped Dr. Dry’s teenage son organize a blood drive for his Eagle Scout project.

“Terri used her opera storytelling skills to help my son understand everyone’s role during the blood drive, which really helped him feel comfortable working with the UCLA team,” Dr. Dry says. “It turned out to be the largest external blood drive since the start of the pandemic, which was a welcome success for Hill and the Donor Center.

Challenging times

Blood drives were halted when the pandemic hit, forcing Hill and her staff to reinvent ways to obtain donors. At first, they opened shop in the basement of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. Donors were primarily UCLA Health employees until they could start recruiting community members.

Terri Hill assists with a blood drive at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“It was a real challenge to build the program again,” Hill says. “But it was definitely a highlight knowing that we were actually able to collect units for our patients.”

She notes that donor attendance across the country fell to 25% during the pandemic while UCLA was able to maintain 50% of the hospital’s transfusion needs. Blood drives have since resumed, and the BPC is committed to collecting blood safely in post-pandemic times, complying with the host organizations’ COVID-19 protocols as well as their own, she says. Given the stress of the past 18 months, Hill looks forward to having her art at night, she says.

“I go to the opera and put on makeup and I get to sing and hear beautiful music. It’s such a different thing and it’s kind of a de-stressor. It’s a great outlet.”

Next up for Hill and the LA Opera is Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” opening Oct. 16.

Learn more about making a donation through the UCLA Blood & Platelet Center.

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.