“Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Ensign, May 1984, 87–88
On Thursday, the heart surgeon spent the day at the hospital. On Friday morning, he attended the Regional Representatives seminar in the Church Office Building and, for reasons unknown to him at the time, was summoned that afternoon to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s office. The next morning in general conference, 7 April 1984, he was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Hours afterward, Elder Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Dantzel, paused for a few moments to reflect upon the call, their lives, and their testimonies.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to anguish over the call before it was announced,” he said. But the 59-year-old General Authority has spent years preparing and serving. Twenty years earlier, he had received a call from Elder Spencer W. Kimball to serve as a stake president, after having served in bishoprics and on a high council. In 1971 he became general president of the Sunday School. Then in 1979 he was called as a Regional Representative. Each time a calling came, he reflected upon a commitment he and his wife made when they were married in the temple—to “seek … first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), confident that the Lord would bless them in their assignments, in his profession, and in their family.
“When Elder Kimball called me and set me apart as stake president in 1964, we were just starting in medicine on the challenge of replacing the aortic valve. Mortality rates were high, and the time commitment to each patient was extremely high—almost one-on-one for many, many hours, sometimes even days. When Elder Kimball called me to be the stake president, he jokingly said, ‘Everybody we’ve interviewed around here says you might be all right, but you don’t have the time. Do you have the time?’
“I replied, ‘I don’t know about that, but I have the faith!’ And then I explained to him the challenges—that getting into the field of aortic valve replacement was a heavy time commitment and that our mortality rates were high. Both problems were of great concern to me.
“In the blessing that he pronounced upon my head that day, he specifically blessed me that our mortality rates with aortic valve surgery in particular would be reduced, and that no longer would the procedure be the drain on my time and energy that it had been in the past. The following year, the time demands of the operation did decrease, and I’ve had the time necessary to serve in that and other callings. In fact, our mortality rates went down to where they are today—at a very low and acceptable, tolerable range. Interestingly enough, that’s the very operation I did for President Kimball eight years later.”
Indeed, President Kimball was himself a recipient of the blessing he pronounced on the head of the new stake president. In 1972, at the age of seventy-seven, President Kimball needed to have a complex heart operation, with replacement of the aortic valve and a coronary artery bypass graft. The day before performing the operation, Dr. Nelson received another blessing, this time at the hands of President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner. “I was promised that the operation would be performed without error, that all would go well, and that I need not fear for my own inadequacies, for I had been raised up by the Lord to perform this operation.”
As he was concluding a flawless operation, Dr. Nelson had an overpowering feeling: “I had a sure witness as I was standing there that the man I had just operated on would become the President of the Church!” At the time, such an impression was surprising: Joseph Fielding Smith was President of the Church, and Harold B. Lee was younger and healthier than Elder Kimball. “So that feeling was quite unexpected,” said Elder Nelson, “but it was real.”
Dr. Nelson was well prepared professionally, as well as spiritually, to operate on President Kimball. He received B.A. and M.D. degrees from the University of Utah, then his Ph. D. in 1954 from the University of Minnesota. In 1970, Brigham Young University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.
He has worked as research professor of surgery, director of the Thoracic Surgical Residency at the University of Utah, chairman of the Division of Thoracic Surgery, and member and vice-chairman of the board of governors of LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Numerous honors acknowledge his professional service and extensive volunteer work among them the Distinguished Service Award, Utah State Medical Association; Citation, International Service, American Heart Association; and Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement. He has served as president of the Society for Vascular Surgery, and as chairman of the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association.
Despite the rigors and demands of heavy Church and professional assignments, the new member of the Twelve feels that his family is his most important priority. “I think the greatest challenge a father has is in his home and in his responsibilities there. The greatest challenge a woman has is with her children.” Elder Nelson and his wife, Dantzel, are the parents of ten children—nine daughters and a son. Eight daughters have been married in the temple. Marjorie, eighteen, and Russell, twelve, still live at home. And the day Elder Nelson was sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve, their twenty-second grandchild was born. (See “Call to the Holy Apostleship,” p. 52, this issue.)
Sister Nelson attributes much of their family togetherness to music, an interest they all share. They love to perform together; they all sing and play the piano or another instrument. Elder Nelson studied keyboard harmony and was a member of the A Cappella Choir at the University of Utah, and he continues his interest in both piano and organ. Sister Nelson, who turned down a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music in order to marry, has been a member of the Tabernacle Choir since 1967. She sang with the Choir the morning her husband was sustained to the Twelve.
“The mother is the heart of the home in our house,” Elder Nelson said. “She has had the major responsibility for training and tutoring our ten children. You can imagine how much help she gets from a husband who is a surgeon and is active in the Church! While I was stake president for many years, she had all the responsibility for making my appointments because, with my schedule, I couldn’t have an appointment secretary. She was the only one who could have any idea about the moment-to-moment changes that came into my life as a heart surgeon. In all of our thirty-eight years together, she has been continually supportive.”
Elder Nelson’s experiences in the Church, in his profession, and in his family have contributed to the apostolic witness he now bears as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. “I have a deep and abiding faith in God,” he said. “And I know that salvation can come only through His Son, Jesus Christ. Our irrefutable responsibility is to prepare the world for the Second Coming. This work will fill the earth, and every knee ultimately will bow and every tongue eventually will confess that Jesus is the Christ.
“I know this is going to be a very difficult assignment. By myself, of course, I can do nothing. But I have the faith that the Lord has called me to do the work, and I’ll do it with his help. At the last day I hope to be found worthy of the approbation: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’” (Matt. 25:21.)