Malia Erickson: The number of obstacles you overcame throughout your life makes this story especially inspirational. When did you first decide to write a memoir and what prompted the idea? Did anyone in particular encourage you to do so?
Dr. Arun Singh: My wife encouraged me to write my story. On the first morning of retirement exactly three years ago, she told me my journey was an amazing one, one that most people would find fascinating and inspirational and that I should strongly think of writing it down, if not for a book but for our kids and grand-kids. Once we started it, I thought it would be a great book, and that’s why it ended up a book.
Malia: And once you realize that more than just your kids and grand-kids would be reading this story, who did you picture reading Your Heart, My Hands? Did you envision the young Arun who read about the Mayo brothers and Dr. William Halsted? Did you write to inspire young doctors? Or young immigrants? Or both?
Dr. Singh: I wasn’t thinking of any one particular group. It just emerged as the kind of story that [makes people realize] if I could achieve my dream with all the highs and lows I went through, then so could others, like many immigrants, underprivileged, minority, kids with a disability, all the health care providers, medical students, patients and doctors.
The Mayo brothers and Dr. William Halsted were inspiring to me. What impressed me was their accomplishments and what they were able to achieve. The Mayo brothers opened a top-notch hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, which is a very small town, especially in the 1800’s. And Dr. Halsted had a drug problem. They had some issues but what impressed me is how they succeeded; they were determined, they were focused to do what they wanted to do, and they accomplished that.
But their stories did not inspire me to write a memoir, that credit goes to my wife.
I hope that when people read my book they feel inspired to accomplish what they want in their life, regardless of who they are or where they come from. As I describe in the book, I was educated by my mother, I had dyslexia, I had a broken hand, I was a man of color in a different culture, I had a million excuses not to achieve anything. And so this is a book for any and every one.
It is also a story about mothers: my mother who educated me, guided me, and did not give up on me, and my wife, the mother of my two children. She had breast cancer, raised our children, and encouraged me to do my own work. It is very much a story about mothers. I want my story to show the importance of determination and focus in accomplishing one’s goals.
Malia: Your drive is incredible, and I think many readers will find inspiration in your story. You mention having dyslexia. How did this affect your writing process? Is that part of why you decided to work with a co-writer to write a memoir?
Dr. Singh: Well, it’s difficult. Dyslexia, as you know, is a congenital anomaly, and when people are dyslexic, they have a problem decoding words in a text. So I have trouble comprehending and understanding. I have to repeat over and over in order to understand a text. English is not my first language which made it more difficult for me, but I learned that I had to sit down and go over the text again and again.
I wasn’t going to go back to school to learn how to master English, master the language. So I read many books, and I attended many conferences. Not ever having experienced the literary world, I realized I needed help. I learned you just don’t sit down and write and think your book will fly off the shelves or that publishers will be knocking on your door. Since I wasn’t going back to school to learn how the system works, I found a guide, Lisa Tener, book coach, and she was very, very supportive. It worked out for me. She helped guide me in the right direction. I started the book on my own but I needed Lisa’s help on how to go after it. She provided me with some names and one of them was John Hanc, who became my co-author.
Malia: The scenes you create for readers are incredibly vivid and the emotions your writing evokes are equally powerful. Can you share any particular lessons or challenges in writing a memoir?
Dr. Singh: I wanted to stay true to my story. And it’s difficult sometimes to do this because it’s emotional, nobody wants to revisit their past. I had to revisit mine which was sometimes painful. If you go back in your life, I’m sure there are memories there that you don’t want to visit but you have to be true to it if you want to write a memoir.
Malia: What kind of writing experience did you have prior to writing Your Heart, My Hands?
Dr. Singh: I wrote over 150 medical articles, many chapters in medical textbooks but that kind of writing is totally different then writing a memoir. Lisa gave me some advice on how to write it and gave me a direction. I needed help because of my language and dyslexia.
I spent my life keeping my deepest, darkest secrets and now I’m announcing them to the world and wondering how the world will judge me. Now people know what I did. From my broken arms, to hopping trains, to my dyslexia. If people knew the story they probably would have never come to me as patients! Some people knew off and on about my broken arms, people who worked with me knew my hands were weak, but I didn’t dwell on this in my 45 years of practice. Now everyone can read about it after I am retired.
Malia: And why did you choose to write the memoir, Your Heart, My Hands, at this particular time in your life? Was it a way for you to reflect on your career and life?
Dr. Singh: Absolutely. Retirement came so unexpectedly. I was getting older and younger people wanted to come up in the field. I was planning to retire, but, as you will read in my book, others had other plans for me and I had no control. I retired prematurely. And then my wife encouraged me to write my story for my kids and grand-kids. Gradually, it was told and ended up evolving into this book. It was absolutely a way for me to reflect on my life and career.
Malia: Many of my writing professors have told me that writing is about making choices. As you reflected on your life and what you’ve experienced, was it difficult to decide what to include and what to omit from your memoir? How did you makes these decisions?
Dr. Singh: The things that affected me the most I knew had to be told. I didn’t want to put every story in the book because then it would have been all jumbled, a never-ending book. You want to give the message. I gave some examples, some of the most important ones.
First, one must be totally honest no matter how painful. Parts of writing this were very painful, especially writing about my dad and how I felt about him. And now I that I’ve made up with him; I understand him more than when I was a kid. He was in a serious depression. When I was a 7- or 8-year-old, I wasn’t thinking about that, but now, 50 years later, I think this is what he had.
The center of this book has to be my feelings and I made it that way. My co-author, John Hanc, helped make the book flow. If he wanted to correct something, I let him, but there were times when I was correct, too. He wouldn’t want something in the book, but I would say, “No, we are including this.” Like the first four lines of the book (the poem), he didn’t want to put that in but I said, “No. It is going to be there.” Some other things he didn’t think were necessary were immigration or my sister’s marriage, but I needed to put these things in because they were very important. So, some things I had to take over. I read each page over and over to my wife until we knew that the words expressed my feelings, not easy but I did it.
Malia: Yes, writing about one’s own life requires one to revisit memories that would rather be forgotten or to confront unfavorable parts of one’s own self, a process which can definitely be painful and difficult. You write very honestly in your memoir. Could you tell us more about what it was like for you to let yourself be so honest and vulnerable with your readers? How did you overcome any resistance? Do you think that the emotional stress of performing surgeries helped you write honestly?
Dr. Singh: We are all human, we all have emotions, but during surgery you control your emotions. If the patient is having a problem, you have to make the proper decision and if you act emotionally, you will not be able to make a scientific decision. You have to control the emotion.
But in writing, some of the emotional things, the powerful things, become the most important. Truth be known, I did change the truth a bit at first, until my wife picked up on it. She made me revisit my painful past and put it back in the book. She would see the parts that didn’t sound right and would tell me that I had to be more open. She picked up if I was trying to avoid something. She would say, “Hey, this is garbage, go do it again,” so I would change those parts around to be more honest and better. My wife was very much a co-author.
And a few of my close friends would also read the drafts. With both my wife and these close friends, I was able to discuss what I was writing about. It’s teamwork. My wife was a major part. It still pains me to think of those memories. Sometimes, you’re crying and you don’t want to write those memories but you go back and do it again to write it correctly, to tell the truth. I’m very fortunate to have a family that loves and supported me through this journey. That makes a very big difference, at least to me.
Malia: Having people who know, understand, and support you to read drafts and to discuss ideas with certainly helps the writing process. When writing about your past patients and your friends in the medical field, did you inform them that you were including their story in your memoir? Did you have any trepidation about writing about other people? How did you overcome this?
Dr. Singh: My friends were extremely supportive because they were there every step of the way at medical school and through my career. They have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The events and people described in this book are all real. However, I have altered many of their identities, created composite characters, mostly of the people who died or had complications. My co-author and I created these composite characters together. [Much of] my co-author’s job was to help make the book flow.
Malia: As someone venerated in the medical field who has published academic papers, in what ways was publishing Your Heart, My Hands different? What steps did you take to get your memoir published? What difficulties did you face?
Dr. Singh: Writing a memoir was very different from writing medical articles. I needed the help. I read many books first. I must have read about twenty or thirty different memoirs to see how people wrote and get a feel for the styles. I don’t sleep, only 3 or 4 hours, so I have plenty of time to read all these books. I took a course at Harvard about book writing and I was also fortunate to meet Lisa Tener, book coach, she gave me encouragement and put me in right path. I started writing it and this is the product.
Malia: As I read Your Heart, My Hands, I recounted your story to many of my friends and a few of them said it would make a great movie. If you had this opportunity, would you consider making a movie?
Dr. Singh: You are not the first one to ask that question! A lot of people who read it asked me the same question: “When are you doing the movie?!” I would love to see it become a movie. I am not in the movie business, so the media will decide. I have failed more times then I care to remember but I never lost my dreams and the hope that one day I might achieve them. All too many give up on themselves.
Malia: Now that Your Heart, My Hands has been published, is there anything you would change or do differently in writing the memoir? Why?
Dr. Singh: Since the book is published, it was a good ride and experience. I would not make any changes if I had to do it all over again. I am happy with my team and outcome. I think my book came out right.
Malia: I agree. I heard that you started with writing the memoir and, later, your co-author introduced you to your agent. What was that process like? Did you need a book proposal?
Dr. Singh: In the beginning, I had no idea how to proceed for traditional book publishing. As time went on I realized I needed an expert and an agent. As a first time author, not well known in media, writing a memoir was a tough sell. I didn’t want to just write it for Amazon, I wanted the book to be better. I wanted people to say that this is a good book and have critics look at it. For a good publishing company to pick up the book, that means they must have liked your story.
As a first time author, it was hard to find an agent. The agents would ask me how many Twitter followers I had and what my media presence was, but during my career, I was operating and taking care of patients, not building a following. And memoirs especially are a tough sell. Agents prefer memoirs of very famous people, like Michelle Obama, for example. As a surgeon, I wasn’t nationally recognized, so it was very difficult. I had many rejections and setbacks. But I kept on course, I had faith, I kept working, and I ran into Lisa.
With her help, I was connected to John Hanc, who, along with a couple of others, helped me write the proposal. Then, he persuaded Linda Konner, a literary agent, to get on board.
Malia: I heard you had lines out the door at the Barrington Books event in April—that over 1,000 people attended and you signed over 1,200 books. And that Cardi Brothers sponsored billboards for the Barrington Books and Barnes and Noble events. Congratulations! It speaks to how beloved you are in Rhode Island—so many people are eager to support you and get the word out about Your Heart, My Hands.
Lisa Tener also mentioned that you’ve had interviews with radio stations in Atlanta and Orlando. It sounds like the book is being well received and gaining momentum.
What are your plans for reaching readers and promoting Your Heart, My Hands?
Dr. Singh: I am extremely committed to marketing this book, appearing and promoting on as many radio stations, TV’s, in social media, colleges, schools, clubs and taking every possible opportunity to promote the book. I will be on Channel 10 for Mother’s Day, I was on the Rhode Show, and I will be talking at URI in the fall. I gave a lecture at Rhode Island College. I’m going to give presentations at Bryant, Salve Regina, and also at Brown. I have several radio station interviews coming up, as well.
I have a lot of friends and family in Rhode Island who are eager to help me build my media. And I am doing as many talks as I can to promote this book, whether on T.V., on the radio, at colleges, community book clubs, anything. Rhode Island is my home, and I want to do as much as I can here first.
Malia: An excellent strategy to start with your base, in this case, Rhode Islanders, many of whom have benefited personally from your handiwork, or have had loved ones who benefited.
Rhode Island readers, if you would like to meet Dr. Singh in person, join him for a book signing on Thursday, May 16 at South County Hospital. The signing will take place in the hospital’s main lobby from 5-7 p.m. Proceeds from book sales will benefit cardiac rehabilitation programs at South County Health.
One of the most prolific Heart surgeons in American history, Arun K. Singh, M.D. was born in India in 1944. Educated in India and trained at Columbia University, NYC, Brown University Medical School and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London and, he has practiced since 1975 at Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, now retired in 2016. There, Dr. Singh helped build a nationally-recognized cardiac surgery program. He has personally performed more than 15,000 documented heart surgeries another 5,000 related procedures—a number virtually unsurpassed in the profession.
As a physician, Dr. Singh has earned numerous awards, including the American Heart Association “Hero at Heart”; the Dr. Charles L. Hill Award from the Rhode Island Medical Society; the first recipient of Milton Hamolsky Outstanding Physician Award, Life time achievement award by the Rhode Island Hospital and was inducted in Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. Dr. Singh lives in Providence with his wife, Barbara. You can purchase Your Heart, My Hands here.