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CHICAGO -- My husband claims that every Spanish song he's ever heard includes the word corazon. So if he doesn't understand anything else, he knows it has to do with matters of the heart.

In love songs, as in life, the heart is at the very center of things, serving as a vessel for endless metaphors: It can be big, small, brave, chicken-y, the seat of the soul, a fountain of emotions, or just a machine susceptible to high-stakes plumbing issues.

The heart is also the apparatus through which Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, author of the captivating memoirs "Intern" and "Doctored," has confronted his own mortality as well as the death of both grandfathers and his mother.

In his latest book, "Heart: A History," Jauhar takes readers on an intensely personal journey that started the moment he noticed he was having a hard time breathing after walking up stairs. Jauhar wondered whether his work as a first responder on 9/11 was catching up with him or if his ancestry was closing in.

For a reader like me who usually devours almost every popular medicine, psychology and science book that comes down the pike -- whether about cannibalism, teeth, cadavers, nutrition or men who mistake their wives for hats -- it takes a lot more than a midlife crisis-induced trip into the inner workings of a particular organ to make a book worth the read.

Jauhar delivers on emotional, technical and historical fronts.

For however many books about advances in medicine I've read, I had never heard about the story of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an African-American physician who performed what is believed to have been the first open-heart surgery.

As Jauhar puts it, "Until that summer day in 1893, surgery had scarcely ever been attempted on a live human heart. Though it is difficult to fathom today, when invasive cardiac treatments are at the forefront of medicine, the heart was essentially off-limits to doctors until almost the beginning of the 20th century. All major human organs, including the brain, had been operated on, but the heart stood apart, encased in historical and cultural prohibitions much thicker than its membranous pericardium."

In 1891, Williams, a self-taught surgical apprentice who completed his training at the medical college that eventually became Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, had set up Provident, the first African-American owned and operated hospital in America.

He had to invite the public into his operating room once a week to create trust with a marginalized community that had learned, through years of mistreatment, that modern medicine was not set up for blacks to have successful health outcomes.

Williams' incredible success story is tempered by others in "Heart: A History" that reflect some of the racism that has created fear of mistreatment at the hands of supposed healers.

In the late 1950s, when C. Walton Lillehei, pioneer of a procedure that used catheters and pumps to circulate blood between two humans in order to repair heart defects, needed a volunteer to help an ailing black man, even the volunteers of last resort -- white inmates at a penitentiary -- refused to help the black patient. Lillehei resorted to using a dog's lung to oxygenate the man's blood and he quickly died on the operating table.

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Jauhar also tells us about women, like Mary Hopkinson Gibbon, who was essential in developing the first heart-lung machines that have made modern surgical heart procedures possible.

Mary assisted her husband, Dr. John Gibbon, in the painstaking work of performing early experiments on stray cats and dogs. This work yielded a precise method for keeping the animals alive for several hours by circulating blood and oxygen with a machine so the heart could be operated on safely.

Jauhar relays other historical events, current-day case studies and personal experiences in beautiful, poetic language. The book wraps up with a call to investigate how psychosocial factors like interpersonal connectedness, joy, state of mind, the safety of our neighborhoods and the environment affect our health and well-being.

No one knows whether the human heart's journey from being seen as an "inviolable sanctuary" to what one writer called "an object of surgical assault" will eventually result in sure-fire medical technology for extending life beyond our current spans.

But if you learn nothing else from "Heart: A History," know that your views on this promise will vary depending on how good you feel after a brisk walk. Maybe listening to some sappy love songs can help.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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