Elder Renlund speaks to fellow physicians on lessons learned from his patients

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

As a third-year medical student, Elder Dale G. Renlund encountered a distinguished physician at the University of Utah who posed the question to another student: “We learned from the patients, and then we wrote the textbooks: What did you learn from your patient?”

Elder Renlund, a former practicing cardiologist, General Authority Seventy, and now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, used that theme in his Sept. 29 address to the members of Collegium Aesculapium, an organization for LDS physicians and health professionals. The occasion was an evening dinner at the Radisson Hotel in Salt Lake City preceding their annual conference.

“That question has stuck with me for 38 years: What did I learn from my patients?” he said. “And that’s really what I’d like to share tonight: six vignettes of things that I learned from my patients that have real-life lessons.”

Lesson one: An eternal perspective brings gratitude toward God.

Elder Renlund told of a heart-transplant patient for whom the first donor heart did not work. His situation was so grave that everyone expected him to die.

Then, a donor heart became available, the condition of which was considered marginal at best. Surprisingly, the heart worked. The man’s condition rapidly improved, and he went on to live another 18 years and then die of a condition unrelated to the heart.

“But the day before he was to be discharged, I walked into his room,” Elder Renlund recounted. “He was sitting on his bed, and he had a tray in front of him. I could tell something was wrong.”

Asked about it, the man said through gritted teeth, looking at the breakfast, “The oatmeal isn’t hot, and the milk isn’t cold.”

Elder Renlund remarked, “For a moment, he had taken his eye off the bigger picture of where he had been, the miracles that occurred and what was still to come.

“And we do that too. The lesson I take from this is that when we’re challenged by day-to-day events that are sometimes very frustrating, it is very easy to take our eye off the big picture. And this eternal perspective necessarily entails remembering God and His greatness towards us.”

Lesson two: Live in thanksgiving daily.

A heart-transplant patient had developed a sort of gallows humor as a means of coping while enduring the difficult period of waiting for a donor heart to become available, Elder Renlund said.

Then one evening, a young man was killed when a train crashed into his car. The family agreed that his heart could be donated provided it be given to the man that Elder Renlund said had the gallows humor. The victim of the accident was the man’s grandson.

That changed the heart recipient. “Every day he lived in deep gratitude for his grandson’s gift of life,” Elder Renlund said. “Every day he woke up, he told me, he was grateful for that grandson and grateful for life and felt he needed to be the best kind of person he could be for his grandson.”

Lesson three: Pray without ceasing.

When Elder Renlund was in his residency at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, his wife, Ruth, developed ovarian cancer.

A patient at his residency clinic, a woman of 87 with Parkinson’s disease, asked about his wife’s condition.

“Is your wife Presbyterian?” the woman asked.

“No, we’re Mormon,” was the reply.

“Well, I’ll pray for her anyway,” the woman said.

Nine months of treatment for Sister Renlund was successful.

Thereafter, the patient in the clinic and her daughter inquired after Sister Renlund and learned of the success of the treatment.

Then, the daughter said her mother had prayed three times a day that Sister Renlund would be restored to full health.

“What she taught me was that we should pray without ceasing for the things that are close to us,” Elder Renlund remarked. “She trusted the Psalmist, who said, ‘Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice’ ” (Psalm 55:17).

Lesson four: We are agents to act and not objects to be acted upon.

Elder Renlund told of a young man who was released from his mission because he developed heart trouble. He became a transplant patient.

Subsequently he married and started a family.

He would often miss appointments or neglect to take his medication.

He kept having rejection episodes; one ultimately claimed his life.

“When I reviewed his medical course, I realized that [he] had behaved like an object, something that circumstances act upon, as opposed to being an agent, taking care of himself,” Elder Renlund commented. “The Book of Mormon teaches this eternal truth: that because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we’re free forever, knowing good from evil, to act for ourselves and not to be acted upon.”

Lesson five: Heartache can be turned to joy through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elder Renlund told of a heart transplant patient who met with the family of his heart donor and expressed gratitude to them.

“When [he] met with them he told them he felt impressed to share with them the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of eternal families,” Elder Renlund said. “He told them he couldn’t bring their son back but he could do something to help them understand where their son was.

“[He] bore his testimony, involved missionaries, and discussions were arranged. The family was taught and joined the Church. [He] was thrilled to be present as they were baptized and then as temple blessings were received.”

Later, members of the donor family were present as Elder Renlund officiated in the wedding of the transplant recipient at the Provo Utah Temple.

“Needless to say, emotions ran high. The mother of the donor experienced something very sacred in the temple that day. Her grief had become joy, her sorrow had turned to hope, and her hope was centered in Jesus Christ and His Atonement.”

Lesson six: There is only one true way.

Elder Renlund told of a man who some were worried that he did not have the capability to handle the complex medical regimen that goes with a heart transplant. But the decision was made to go ahead with it.

“I told him that he needed to take his medicines and that he should never do anything that wasn’t told him by one of the transplant cardiologists or what … the nurse coordinator told him,” Elder Renlund said.

The man followed the instructions he was given explicitly. As a result, he did extraordinarily well over the course of decades. “It’s interesting for me to contrast the meekness and humility that [the patient] had with [the attitude of] other patients. As important as our physical health is, our spiritual health is more important. Whose way will win out in our lives? Some say to God, ‘I will do things Thy way.’ Others say, ‘I will do things my way.’ ”

He added, “Just as doing ‘my-way’ medicine leads to morbidity and mortality, doing it ‘my-way’ in life leads to spiritual morbidity and mortality. There is only one true way, and that’s God’s way.”

At the conclusion of Elder Renlund’s address, this year’s Collegium Aesculapium president, Dr. Donald Doty, presented him with the association’s Aesculapius Award for Humanitarian Service — a bust of Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing in Greek mythology. The award was for Elder Renlund’s work as a practicing physician and as a General Authority Seventy ministering with Sister Renlund to the people and nations of Africa.

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