A wonderful, remarkable life

A top doc tells his story
Thu, 08/22/2019 - 5:30pm

One day in India around 1949, a young boy named Arun Singh was walking in his grandfather’s back yard. He tripped and fell, broke his right collar bone, and spent months in recuperation. Two years later, seven-year old Arun climbed a guava tree only to have a terrifying experience. He climbed the tree to pick some fruit, but some Hanuman langur monkeys “had the same idea,” as he writes in his wonderful memoir, “Your Heart, My Hands,” which he will read at The Spring House Hotel on Sunday, Aug. 25. “If you are envisioning an amusing chimpanzee or the chatting monkey you saw swinging from branches on your last visit to the zoo, forget it.” The terrified young boy let go of his grip, fell to the ground, shattering his right elbow. A poorly set cast mangled his arm and especially his right hand. “My hand was in a fixed, extended position called frozen joint. I couldn’t pick things up, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t even feed myself,” writes the man who would become one of the foremost heart surgeons in America.

His father was fearful his son would be reduced to begging. His mother prayed for strength. When the family learns that his arm would have to be reset, Singh writes: “I was crying and screaming; I knew what was coming, and it was an even worse prospect than becoming a beggar. Anesthesia was out of the question because of the hepatitis I had developed. Instead of painkillers, I had four strong adults holding me down —one on each leg, one on my left arm, one on my head and chest. The surgeon and his assistant grabbed my hand. For the third time now, he would need to break my right elbow joint... I saw the doctor position his hands carefully in order to break the joint cleanly. He looked up at his assistants, nodded, and they redoubled their grip on me. Then...”


And so begins the remarkable story of Dr. Arun Singh.

He practiced at Rhode Island Hospital- Brown University for more than 40 years, and was a member of the faculty at Brown University’s Alpert Medical Alpert Medical School, where he is now professor emeritus. He has received numerous awards, including the American Heart Association’s Hero at Heart Award, and was rated a top doctor by Rhode Island Monthly for 20 consecutive years.

Now 75, Singh retired three years ago, and is traveling the country telling the story about how a boy born in India came to America and overcame a host of physical and cultural adversities.

When asked how the book came about, Singh said he had gone from a very busy life to an unstructured one in retirement.

“My wife encouraged me. Why don’t you write it down for your children and grandkids? It’s an interesting life. My wife knew the story, but not all the details, so I wrote it down and I let my wife read it and she said, ‘This is a piece of shit. No flow to it, no direction to it.’ I said to myself, I have to do this all over again.” I had written scientific papers, but writing a book is an entirely different experience. I made a lot of rookie mistakes.”

In the end, Dr. Singh said he tried to write a very human book.

“It’s not a medical book,” he said. He tells of the mysteries of his father he discovers, ones that make that parent more human. He writes of the steely determination of his mother who worked with young Arun to ensure he overcomes his physical challenges. Of how, on the night he received a major honor, he looked up at the stars to marvel at the journey his life had taken him on.

“Despite all the troubles, all the challenges, being of a different race, from a different culture, dyslexia, a boy whose hand was mangled, I ended up doing a job with the greatest dexterity because of determination and grit. That’s the story. I want to tell immigrants: racism will always be there in society. Did it make me happy? Did it hurt me? It did hurt me, but if you get bogged down in that, it will keep you down. That positivity came from my mother,” he said to The Block Island Times. “One of the things, when my hand was really mangled, my mom and I were desperate and my mom grabbed me and held me tight, and said, ‘Look up and don’t give up.’ I never gave up. I had a lot of failures in my life, but two women in my life saved me. My mom, and I met a lovely woman who is now my wife. She pulled me out of my darkest days. She made me do what I wanted to do. Without Barbara’s support, I would not have done it.”

The book is about those human connections, and the many that Dr. Singh has made during his 75 years.

“Every life matters, no matter race, sex. I’m not here to judge you, because disease does not discriminate,” he said. “So we talk about some of these things in the book.”

And he will tell you about Shawn, a young patient who gave Dr. Singh a pamphlet called “Please make my heart better,” which he still has on his desk 41 years later.

Dr. Singh will read and sign copies of his book, “Your Heart, My Hands,” at The Spring House on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 12:30 p.m.

This is a lunch with limited seating. For reservations, please call Tanya at (401) 466-5844, ext. 119 or by email at tanya@springhousehotel.com.