The Heart of the Matter

Dr. Arun Singh performed more than 15,000 open-heart surgeries, but his new memoir reveals more than medical wizardry

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Throughout his 75 years, Dr. Arun K. Singh has seen plenty of close calls. He grew up in dire poverty in India, surviving hepatitis, typhoid, and malaria. He suffered from extreme dyslexia, and education was always an uphill battle. He was once attacked by a monkey and fell from a tree, shattering his elbow. Still, he went to medical school. In his early twenties, his family somehow raised enough money to fly him to the United States. He arrived in Worcester, Massachusetts, with only a few dollars in his pocket. There, he met hostile doctors who had no time for a physician from overseas. At any point, Dr. Singh might have given up, and who could blame him?

But he didn't. As he narrates the story in his new memoir, Your Heart My Hands, Dr. Singh always muddled through – and today, he is among the most acclaimed thoracic surgeons in the country. Before retiring a few years ago, he had performed 15,000 open heart surgeries. He started practicing at Rhode Island Hospital in 1975, and he helped establish its world-class cardiac surgery program. He taught for Brown University’s The Warren Alpert Medical School and authored more than 150 scientific papers.

Dr. Singh’s life can seem miraculous, but one of his unlikeliest successes is the book itself. The day after he retired – almost exactly three years ago – he started composing his autobiography. He knew nothing about the publishing industry; he had never written creatively, never heard of literary agents, and he wasn’t even much of a typist. He first dictated his life story into an old tape recorder, then specialordered a machine that could play micro-cassettes, then hired someone to transcribe the hours-long recordings. From there, revision, revision, revision.

“I had written a lot of papers, but scientific writing is different,” says Dr. Singh. “For memoir, you really have to go deep down. And if you don’t go deep down, it’s not going to be truthful.”

As always, the toil paid off. Your Heart was released last month by Center Street, a division of big-league Hachette Book Group. During its review period, the book amassed some hefty praise; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri called the book “an absorbing account” and “unconventional and affecting.” Dr. Singh debated some of the book’s finer points with his publishers; they weren't interested in the theme of immigration, but he pushed back. The book’s subtitle speaks to his insistence: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Become One of America’s Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons.

“Immigration was very important to me,” Dr. Singh says. “I wanted people in the next generation to have empathy, to have concern for immigrants. I want them to know what we went through.”

As Dr. Singh revisited his past, he also explored his complex family history. He cheerfully recounts meeting a woman named Barbara; they have now been married half a century, and they have two sons and three grandchildren. He goes back further, describing a conflicted grandfather; a father who struggled with depression; and, at the heart of the story, a redoubtable matriarch.

“The hero of the book is my mother,” says Dr. Singh. “My mother was not educated. But she was my mentor. She was very smart, street-wise, practical. I would always ask her opinion. She knew what life was about.”

Given his professional legacy, much of Dr. Singh’s narrative has to do with his 50-year career in the operating room, as well as the politics of hospital life. Yet each anecdote has clear parabolic purpose, and casual readers will find his prose blessedly jargon-free.

“I wanted to have less description of surgery,” says Dr. Singh. “I wanted this book not to be a medical book, but a human book.”