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Elder Russell M. Nelson, M.D. Distinguished Alumni - U of U School of Medicine

Russell Nelson’s life and career are marked by service––to his patients and family, his church, his country and to science. Born in Salt Lake, the renowned heart surgeon and researcher received both his B.A. and M.D. degrees from the University of Utah. He served residencies at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the University of Minnesota where he earned his Ph.D. In 1951 he was called into military service, his studies interrupted by the Korean War.

Upon return, he was able to resume his groundbreaking work in cardiology. It was an emerging field and Nelson embraced its challenges. He performed some of the first open heart surgeries and his research contributed to surgical advances still in use today. He was director of Thoracic Surgery Residency at the U. and chairman of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at LDS Hospital. He held numerous professional leadership posts, including president of the Society for Vascular Surgery and president of the Utah Medical Association. In 1984, Elder Nelson was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his late-wife, Dantzel (White) Nelson, had 10 children. He later remarried to Wendy Watson, and at last count has 57 grandchildren and 79 great-grandchildren. This fall he celebrated his 90th birthday.

Elder Russell M. Nelson, M.D., ‘47  On finding work-life balance as a father, surgeon, scientist and church leader:

My first priority is to my wife and then to my children. My work is to support my wife and my children, not the other way around. You cannot support them by staying at home. You’ve got to go out into the world and do something worthwhile. And if you’re a doctor, you’ve got to be a good doctor. You can’t be mediocre doctor because that isn’t fair to your patients. That means you’re going to be away from [your family], but when you’re home, you’re home. Leave the day’s traffic behind. Give them 100 percent of your attention when you’re there. I used to tell myself, “Don’t you walk into that house, Russell until you can bless the lives of your children and wife.”

On choosing medicine:

My father wanted me to go into his line of work, advertising. I started working for him and his firm when I was 10. The most motivating thing for me was Christmas time while working at a post office sorting mail. It was a dreadfully dull job and I kept looking at the clock wondering when my time was going to be up and I thought, “I better get an education.” In high school I discovered I loved biology and math, and I loved people. I told Mom and Dad, “I don’t want to disappoint you, but I want to be a doctor.” They said, “We’ll be glad to help you. We’ll support you any way we can.”

On choosing surgery:

I kind of drifted into surgery because of Emil G. Holmstrom, M.D., an obstetrics and gynecology professor who had been recruited to the U. from the University of Minnesota Medical School. He suggested I do an internship and residency in Minnesota; he said he could get me an interview. It was the unknown. I went into surgery because I thought it would be a challenge. I liked, not only the discipline of medicine, but the opportunity to get in and do something about it, which a surgeon can do. And I went into cardiac work because no one knew anything about it.

On becoming a researcher:

In medical school the textbooks said, “You never touch the human heart, because if you do, it’ll stop beating.” That’s how very little we knew about the heart in 1947. It was against that backdrop that I started doing research on the heart in Minnesota. One thing led to another. We started work on the heart-lung machine. I was part of the team that did the very first open heart operation employing extracorporeal circulation in March 1951. It was a turning point in the history of surgery, because it went from a question of whether you can open the human heart and have the patient survive to, what is possible now that you can get in there.

On pushing the boundaries of medicine:

I was operating at LDS, but was director of the thoracic surgery program for the U. for 17 years. It proved to be a nice blend, because [at LDS] I had the patients who were coming to me for cardiac surgery, while the U. had a smaller service, but some complicated cases. We went from those early experiments on whether or not the heart would allow you to touch it to sodium ratio perfusions so we could turn the heart on and off. Every basic step was hard. I only operated on about one patient a month because we would find so many surprises with each operation. We’d have to go back to the lab. It took us a year to figure out how to get blood out of the body and have it stay liquid and have it return to the body and be able to clot again. There were pains and heartache and tears along the way. But before we were through we could literally say heart surgery was a lot safer than abdominal surgery.

On the nexus of science and faith:

If something’s true, it ought to be part of you, whether it comes from the scientific lab or from the scriptures or from God himself. You can’t say, “I’m gonna check my religion at the door.” Faith gives you strength in raising your family, it gives you strength in caring for your patients and it gives you strength in reading the literature. In my day I subscribed to 17 different journals. You don’t have time to read 17 journals a month, but you have time to read the abstract. And if the abstract is inconsistent with what you know to be eternally true you don’t read the article. It accelerated the rate at which I could read and study and to know what things I wanted to incorporate in my life and practice. It’s very easy for people to be self-centered and think they are really smart to the exclusion of truth that can come from heavenly messengers. It’s important for you to assimilate truth from wherever it comes and don’t exclude divine revelation.

On the power of prayer:[U1] 

I remember a patient from Kanab, Utah. He had mitral stenosis, [or narrowing of the heart’s mitral valve], and tricuspid regurgitation, [a disorder in which the heart’s tricuspid valve does not close properly, causing blood to leak into the right upper heart chamber]. I told him, “We can help your mitral stenosis but can’t do anything about your tricuspid regurgitation. I can’t operate on you.” He came back to me and said, “I’ve been referred to you for help. …Have you prayed about my problem? Operate on me and the Lord will tell you what to do.” So I accepted him for surgery and I prayed and prayed and prayed and I never got an answer. My resident said as we made the incision, “What are you going to do about his tricuspid regurg?” I told him I didn’t know. So, we were at the point of no return. We’d operated upon his mitral valve and fixed his very bad stenosis and then opened up the right atrium and looked at his tricuspid valve. His annulus was so big I could fit my whole hand in there; normally three fingers would be about the right diameter. Then the most amazing picture was drawn in my mind. I realized, “This circumference is too big. Reduce the circumference of the ring and the valve tissue will be adequate to close that hole.” I put a tuck here and a pleat there, tightened it up and reduced the circumference of the ring. He lived for years after that.

On the early days of the U.’s medical school:

We spent the first two years on lower campus, just opposite the Union building and Kingsbury Hall. We had 52 in our class and 26 of us graduated. A lot of students had to repeat one or two years, and some were just asked to leave and not come back. The medical school transitioned from a two-year to a four-year program in 1944, and I was in the graduating class of ’47. We had a young faculty and they were bright. Our classes were small. I remember Louis S. Goodman [pharmacologist and chemotherapy pioneer]. Edward Hashimoto was our anatomy professor. He would go to blackboard with a piece of chalk in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other hand and draw his pictures with both hands concurrently. Max Wintrobe, a hematologist who pioneered new ways of measuring the hematocrit, was very demanding and helpful to me.

On building a life saving lives:

In learning to save lives you will submit yourself to other peoples’ schedules and demands. You gotta pass medical school. Then you go into your chosen field and you have to pass other peoples’ exams to get certified and the hospital privileges, and so on. You spend the first preparatory period of your life meeting other peoples’ expectations. But then comes the time when you stop worrying about saving lives and you start building lives. You build lives with things that aren’t measurable, like faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience and kindness, even charitable attributes. I go to a lot of funerals now and nobody ever asks how much money you made or how many operations he did or how many cases he had as a lawyer. All the things that will be spoken about you at your funeral are attributes of spiritual dimension, not physical. So you work on building your own life as well as building the lives of people around you while you’re learning how to save lives. That’s my parting advice to you.