For Arun Singh, his childhood became a rigorous journey of facing difficulties, conquering fears and believing in his dreams.
It also created an improbable path that this young boy in 1950s poverty-ridden India could never have imagined and neither did the many people in South County whose quality of life he improved decades later as their surgeon.
He sees himself as living proof of determination and focus delivering on the American Dream of success for anyone who tries hard enough.
When he was six years old, while trying to outsmart a monkey wanting a guava, he climbed up a guava tree and fell from high up. He shattered his elbow and cracked his skull. The elbow fracture, including significant nerve damage, caused paralysis and disability in his arm and hand. His future looked very bleak.
Doctors even told his father and mother his hand would be permanently maimed. This was a sentence to be a beggar in India at the time — nearly 70 years ago.
“The beggars were disabled people. They cannot make a living working. If you don’t have a hand, you cannot make a living,” said Singh.
However, resilience and embarking on an uncharted journey, which also included coping with dyslexia, eventually brought him to Providence where he became a skilled cardiothoracic surgeon manipulating tiny instruments around tiny blood vessels in the heart.
In his new book, “Your Heart, My Hands,” this doctor, who was for many years a top referral from South County Hospital cardiologists, captures his life as an immigrant, healer and trend-setter. His memoir also draws on others he met while practicing his craft of surgery, blanketing them with compassion through their own quest for survival.
It has earned him statewide recognition with patients and medical practitioners alike. South County Hospital and Health System will honor him Thursday, May 16, in its Frances McGillivray Tribute Campaign. During the event, he will autograph a selection of his books and the proceeds from this sale will go to the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program.
“It’s a privilege to host Dr. Singh as he shares inspirational stories about his life in and out of medicine,” said Dr. Steven R. Fera of South County Cardiology, noting that his practice is one of many that entrusted patient lives to Singh because of his skill, experience, and talents as a surgeon.
A devastating injury
In an interview about his book, Singh, 75, and now semi-retired, said that the path to medical school and a successful career was carved by the caring, the compassion and the determination his mother showed him after he became disabled.
It was revealed poignantly one day in a doctor’s office, when Singh, then six years old, was told the grim news that his disabling paralysis would be permanent.
“My father just yelled me and said ‘What you have done to yourself? You have disgraced the Singh family name.’ When I heard the term beggar, I just started crying. I could not be consoled,” he said about the words from his father, a school headmaster, referring to his then young son who could easily find mischief, such as chasing a money in a guava tree.
“My mom said to my dad that yelling and screaming things were not going to get things better. She held me tight, lifted me up and said, ‘Get up, look up and don’t give up.’”
It is a message he has remembered for a lifetime, has given to his patients and has woven throughout the book and his reasons for writing it.
“She dedicated all her time to me, worked with the doctors on a plan to make me better — but in a country and time in the 1950s with none of the modern approaches we see today,” the physician explained. “I carried bricks in a bag down the street like an inmate in a penal colony. I walked, I sobbed, I cried. I did that every day.”
He also had to hold and exercise his arm with a heavy metal bar every day to build strength in his arm. His mother pushed him and tutored him, he said, until he was 10 years old when his improved condition allowed him to return to a normal life and school again.
“That was determination - love of mom for a troubled kid,” he said softly, that helped him find hope in difficulty and the dreams to reach beyond begging.
Her inspiration he took next to medical school and a profession his grandfather, also a surgeon, encouraged him to enter, saying he should help the unfortunate in life.
He also had learned another affliction might steal hope in his dream. While smart, he discovered he had dyslexia, a learning disability making it difficult to read, write and spell in spite of normal intelligence and adequate instruction.
He said that despite this setback, he would persevere. It required that he practice his sutures every night to overcome weakness from his childhood injury as well as re-read texts many times to understand them fully.
Singh graduated in 1967 with honors from medical school in his native country before heading to the United States.
Surgery as a vocation
He trained at hospitals in Worcester, Mass., New York City, Providence and London. He then settled in Rhode Island and for the next 41 years worked as a heart surgeon and became a clinical professor at Brown University School of Medicine.
As he explained his route through medical school and later the grueling hours of a surgeon, he pondered his life’s path for a moment.
“So here I am, a kid who overcame a paralyzed hand, a disabled hand, and was later able to perform with manual dexterity of the highest order and with focus and concentration, even with dyslexia, eye and hand coordination. I was able to do it. “
“It was all because of focus, determination and hard work,” he said, adding that his mother, Krishna, also had the chance to watch him perform delicate open-heart surgery with hands that she helped to make nimble again.
Yet, people ask if he has emotions because his life has been framed by overcoming challenges for both himself and patients, said the physician, who is also a husband and father of two sons.
“You’re the guy doing the surgery and people say he doesn’t have any emotion, he doesn’t say much. I am focused,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have blood running in my veins. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart. “
“It hurts me, as much as anybody, when we lose a patient. I bear the pain of the family in my heart, too” he said.
That emotion helps him to fight for the survival of his patients, he said, pointing to a late 1990s case when his surgical team had reservations about doing a particularly risky operation.
Singh said that a patient, who was also a veteran, in late 30s had heart failure and needed valve surgery. The patient also had hepatitis C and tested positive for the autoimmune disease AIDS.
If valve was not repaired, he would have only a few months to live, but the gamble with surgery meant the patient’s life might be extended another few years or more, the doctor explained.
Singh’s surgical team, however, saw it differently. People were concerned about their exposure to viruses from secretions that often occur during surgery, he said.
“In those days there was a lot of stigma around those people, it was like lepers. Isolate them and ‘Don’t do it (the surgery)’ was the attitude. There was a lot of controversy, especially due to his life expectancy and why do we want to expose the entire team to this kind of thing,” he said.
“I told them, he’s a veteran. He served in a war to protect us. We’re not here to judge him and we ought to do it, “ Singh continued, and he said the team eventually agreed. “We put on spacesuits that looked just like Star Wars. The operation went very well.”
Then something went very wrong.
“At the last minute when everything was done, a distraction, some people talking, took my attention away and a needle from the patient went directly into me and drew blood,” he said.
“Out of all the people, it was me who got exposed. Everybody looked at me and said, ‘Oh, my God.’”
“I looked around and said a few prayers. I’m still alive many years later and never tested positive. This is what you do. This is why I went into health care. I have a calling to provide care to these people,” he said.
Compassion and the American Dream
He also acknowledged the book also has a subtle message for colleagues in the medical profession amid increased demands on practitioners.
“Technology and science have definitely improved the care of the people, but we are losing the side of humanity. We don’t have one-to-one contact, the human to hold your hand when you are sick, when you are dying or to put a hand on your shoulder and say, ‘Everything is going to be fine,’” he said.
“That is lacking now. And what I am trying to say in this book is - be compassionate,” he said, noting it’s a timeless lesson from his mother.
A man with many stories and a prolific memory for detail, Singh put a laser focus on his the driving energy inside him to write a memoir in his mid-70s.
“You don’t have to be a doctor, you don’t have to be a lawyer, do whatever your dream is. Pursue your dream. Work your heart. Don’t listen to anybody negative,” he said, adding, “The American dream is still alive and well if you want it.”