Russell M. Nelson: A Study in Obedience
January 1983

“Russell M. Nelson: A Study in Obedience,” Tambuli, Jan. 1983, 21

Russell M. Nelson:

A Study in Obedience

On the operating table under a bright light and surrounded by a jungle of glittering equipment is a sixty-year-old man who is being covered with special green drapes that leave a long, rectangular opening squarely over the middle of his chest and another opening over his left leg.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson joins seven other members of the surgical team in the room: the senior resident in surgery; a surgical nurse; an anesthesiologist; a heart-lung machine specialist; a computer specialist; and two other nurses, one of whom is in charge of the operating room. I stand slightly apart from them, an observer, scrubbed and wearing sanitized clothing.

Having taken their positions, they begin their work with an alacrity that is somewhat chilling to a newcomer. The senior resident, in one deft stroke, makes a foot-long incision the length of the sternum, following quickly with a cauterizing tool that seals off the numerous small blood vessels that have begun to bleed into the wound.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nelson is making an incision in the left leg to locate a vein that will be removed. This is to be a quadruple coronary arterial bypass operation—in other words, surgery to bypass obstructions in four arteries that feed the patient’s heart muscle. The vein being taken from the thigh will be used for the bypass grafts. There is a snipping of scissors and more cauterizing. I make an unscheduled exit to the hallway for a breath of fresh air and a reassessment of my determination to continue with this assignment.

Then comes the whirring sound of an electric saw. Re-entering the room, I am stationed at the head of the operating table, where in full view before me I see that the patient’s sternum has been sawed through longitudinally and an ingenious retractor has been placed in the cleft. Several cranks on a short lever spread the retractor apart—and there, between the patient’s spread ribs, is his beating heart.

Soft music is playing quietly over the intercom. The surgeon’s eyes reveal no amazement, no sense of drama—only deliberate concentration. My weak-in-the-knees feeling soon leaves as the procedure takes on a magnetic fascination.

After more than an hour of painstaking labor, four grafts have been connected to the aorta. Suddenly the blood pressure drops, much to everyone’s surprise. Making true diagnosis immediately, Dr. Nelson points to a clamp that should have been left on one of the many tubes at this critical point in the procedure. It is quickly replaced—a small mistake, but one that could have been costly.

“I still love you,” he says to the team member responsible for the oversight. There is a nod of appreciation. Then Dr. Nelson adds with a wry tone, “Sometimes I love you more than other times …”

And there are smiling eyes all around. He is clearly the one in control of this operation. He keeps the atmosphere light enough so that all the team members remain relaxed. But there is also an unspoken demand for constant concentration.

Dr. Nelson later comments: “It’s a matter of extreme self-discipline. A life is totally dependent on the whole surgical team. So you’ve got to stay just as calm and relaxed and sharp as you ever were.”

Four hours have now elapsed, and things are just about wrapped up. The heart-lung machine has been disengaged and the heart gently shocked into activity with electrodes; the grafts, now fairly bulging with a new blood supply for the heart muscle, have been checked for leaks. The heart is doing well on its own, and the patient is stable. Thoughts now turn to the patient’s worried family, and one of the nurses reaches for a telephone: “We’re off the pump, we’ve done four grafts, and Dr. Nelson will be down in about 45 minutes.”

Open-heart operations like this one are done more than 100,000 times each year in the United States. In his more than thirty years as a pioneer in the field, he has seen the technology associated with open-heart surgery, and the expertise of surgeons advance to the point where less than two in one-hundred patients fail to leave the hospital.

His own medical education began in 1942 during his second year at the University of Utah, (in Salt Lake City, Utah) and since that time he has developed a summary view of medicine that is remarkably simple: “As a physician analyzes a patient’s problem,” he says, “one crucial question needs an answer: Is the patient’s condition one that will improve with the passage of time, or will it become worse? The doctor’s function is to convert the process from one that will not heal to one that will heal with the passage of time.”

In carrying out that function, he says, a physician or surgeon must realize that he has no healing power in himself to dispense. He can only depend on the divinely endowed and timelessly dependable healing powers of the human body. He quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20–21.)

“In other words,” he continues, “whenever a blessing is received, it’s because a law has been obeyed. And that means it will always work—not just most of the time, not just some of the time, but every single time without exception. That takes the pressure off an individual who is willing to study the laws that govern the physical body and be obedient to them. Otherwise we’d be crazy to take these patients down to death and back every day.”

It was while he was studying medicine at the University of Utah that he met his wife-to-be, Dantzel White.

He vividly remembers the feeling that came over him. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and sensed that she was the one I would marry,” he said. Dantzel felt the same way. When she went home to Perry, Utah, she announced to her parents that she had met the man she wanted to marry. Three years later they were married in the Salt Lake Temple.

Having entered the university’s medical school in 1944, Russell completed the four-year course in three years. Then followed an internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital where, in addition to the normal surgical training, he began a program leading to the Ph.D. degree. He also became part of a team that received a five-year research grant to develop a machine that would take over the functions of a patient’s heart and lungs while the heart was being surgically repaired. The challenges were enormous, but after nearly three years of labor it was ready for use. In 1951 it was used for the first time in an open-heart operation on a human being.

With a long period of advanced surgical training behind them, he and Dantzel returned to Salt Lake City with their family, which now included four daughters with a fifth soon to arrive. As an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Utah College of Medicine, he continued in research, teaching, and surgery.

Those first days of open-heart surgery were, in his words, “like sailing an uncharted sea,” with moments of euphoria but with despair as well, when surgery was unable to save a life.

Twenty-five years later, he has still not become hardened to the suffering of his patients. … “Nowadays doctors have a very high rate of success in these operations,” he says, “but we can’t save everyone—that would be impossible. Sometimes all we can do is offer comfort. We don’t ever want to destroy hope. The doctor’s job is to cure sometimes, to relieve suffering frequently, but always to comfort.”

In 1959 he left the University of Utah and went into private practice. There he was, thirty-five years old and with a family of six children, in training all those years after medical school, going deeper and deeper into debt in order to properly prepare himself for his chosen profession.

Nevertheless, he was called to the demanding work of a stake president. Prior to his setting apart, Brother Nelson had mentioned that one of the serious challenges facing him as a surgeon was the difficulty of aortic valve replacement. In the blessing, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, promised him that the quality of his work as a surgeon would increase so that he would have the time to serve as stake president without jeopardizing his patients. Elder Kimball himself was to benefit later from this blessing, for in 1972 the open-heart operation that Dr. Nelson performed on Spencer W. Kimball included aortic valve replacement.

In 1965, Dr. Nelson was presented with an extraordinary opportunity to assume the position of professor of surgery and chairman of the Division of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at another major university. Included in the offer was a generous salary and an arrangement to pay fully for the college education of all his children when the time came.

The Nelsons were overwhelmed by this offer and were inclined to accept. But before making a decision that affected not only their family but also his service as stake president, he sought the counsel of President David O. McKay.

After hearing the details of the situation, President McKay closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and pondered the matter for some time. Then he said, “Brother Nelson, it doesn’t feel good to me. I don’t think you should go.”

“That was it,” says Dr. Nelson. “We declined their gracious offer with many thanks. And here we stayed.”

In June 1971, Dr. Nelson received a phone call from President N. Eldon Tanner asking if he could come to his office. He went at once and found that President Harold B. Lee was also there. (President Joseph Fielding Smith was not well that day.) President Lee and President Tanner indicated that they would like him to serve as head of the Sunday School organization of the Church, if it wouldn’t take him away from his work as a surgeon.

When he had recovered from the shock, Dr. Nelson responded by saying that he would accept any call from the Lord even if he had to leave his medical practice. But they insisted that they wanted him to accept the calling only if he could continue his work as a surgeon as well. Thus he entered upon more than eight years of service as general president of the Sunday School.

The operation was performed on President Kimball the following year on April 12. It was flawless—thousands of intricate manipulations performed without error, according to a blessing he had received under the hands of President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner. Even more special to Dr. Nelson was an overpowering feeling that came upon him at the conclusion of the operation: “The Spirit told me that I had just operated on a man who would become president of the Church,” he said.

Since his release from the general presidency of the Sunday School in October 1979, Brother Nelson has served as a Regional Representative of the Quorum of the Twelve. He has a demanding surgical schedule, often with two open-heart operations a day; he’s actively involved in professional associations and community affairs; and he still has children at home.

With such heavy demands On his time, how does he manage to have a rewarding family life with only twenty-four hours in each day?

The relationship between the Nelsons and their children has had a particular quality that speaks of eternal ties. Brother Nelson marvels at the close natural affinity for the children that he has observed in Dantzel over the years.

Of his experience as a husband and father, Brother Nelson says that the greatest satisfaction any of us can have is to know that we’re doing what the Lord wants us to do. In that connection, he learned an interesting lesson when, on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, he and his daughter Gloria were thrown from the raft as it plunged over a large rapid.

“It was a terrifying experience,” he reflects, “but it taught me to ‘cling to the iron rod.’ As we went over that rapid, I tried to cling to my daughter, fearful for her survival. But as we took more difficult rapids later, I learned to hang on to the ropes tightly and have my daughter hang on to me. The same principle applies in gospel living. If a man will cling to the word of God and be obedient so that his family can rely on him, the whole family will be safe.”

At age fifty-seven, Brother Nelson has received a multitude of awards for distinguished service, both in the medical profession and in public service. He has had the honor of serving as a director of the American Board of Thoracic Surgeons; he has been president of the Utah Heart Association and the Utah State Medical Association—and the list goes on. But the one interest that overrides all other concerns is his determination to be obedient to the Lord in furthering the work of the kingdom of God.

“The Lord has a tremendous work yet to accomplish in the Church,” he insists. “He’s going to need every faithful soul; there won’t be one prepared, qualified Latter-day Saint who won’t have all the responsibility to shoulder that he or she can bear.”

Russell M. Nelson is obedient to the president of the Church, and he is baffled when he hears people ask questions like, “Is it really the will of the Lord that we do everything that President Kimball says?”

“The Lord said, ‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,’” Dr. Nelson reminds us. “My experience is that once you stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead, and do it, the blessings just pour.

“I never ask myself, ‘When does the prophet speak as a prophet and when does he not?’ My interest has been, ‘How can I be more like him?”

Russell M. Nelson as his patients often see him, dressed for surgery.

Family man Nelson with his wife and some of their children and grandchildren.

Heart surgeon Nelson studies an oversized model of the human heart.

Elder Nelson, in his calling as a Regional Representative of the Quorum of the Twelve, in a meeting with stake presidents.