In September of 1947, shortly after his 23rd birthday, Russell M. Nelson posed for a photo with 13 other young men on the surgical intern staff at the University of Minnesota Hospitals.
On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, he returned to that university to receive the medical school’s Surgical Alumnus of the Year Award.
He received bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Utah in 1945 and 1947, and served his residency in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, where he received his Ph.D. in 1954.
At the time he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1984, he was a world-renowned surgeon, medical researcher, lecturer and teacher. He was a pioneer in open-heart surgery, having researched and helped to implement the development of the artificial heart and lung machine.
“It was really quite interesting that they should ask me to participate in graduation services exactly 60 years after I received my Ph.D. from there,” Elder Nelson told the Church News.
Elder Nelson said he delivered a message that he titled “Saving Lives; Building Lives.”
He told the graduating doctors to ask themselves what they would like said at their funerals, and said everything that will be said about them will pertain to what they have become. He encouraged them to “rise to the divine potential that is in you. Don’t limit your knowledge to what you learned in textbooks. Include the knowledge that God gives you in the scriptures. Read the scriptures and know what they say.”
He spoke of what was known as childbirth fever that, over centuries, claimed the lives of countless women and children. He read Leviticus 15:1-8 and said that those verses give a perfect description of washing hands and technique for cleanliness in the handling of patients. All those women and children until the 19th century died because no one had read Leviticus and applied it, he said. “While you’re getting knowledge, don’t be ignorant of the knowledge God has given in the scriptures.”
Elder Nelson talked about marriage and family, which he called “the great guardians of virtue.” He said, “You don’t have a family to help you become a good doctor. You become a good doctor because it helps you care for your family, so make sure your family gets the attention it needs.”
Elder Nelson said that Dr. David A. Rothenberger, chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, had asked him to tell the students what they need to do to be of service in their community and how to be of service outside the operating room.
“I came up with a few suggestions,” Elder Nelson said. “First, love God, and then love your neighbors. Care for them. Be competent so you can help them. If somebody locally available is better than you, then refer the patient.”
Then he spoke about prayer, saying, “Those patients who are coming to you for an operation are praying for you, so why don’t you pray for your patients and make yourself ready to receive heavenly help as you perform your operations?”
He said that in his early years as a surgeon, he declined to operate upon a man who had come to him. “I didn’t know how to help him,” Elder Nelson said. The man had problems with the mitral and the tricuspid valves. Elder Nelson said he knew how to repair the first, but didn’t know how to fix the second. The man later came back, miserable with chronic heart failure.
“I declined again, saying I didn’t know what to do with the one valve and told him he wouldn’t survive the operation unless we could repair both valves at once. He scolded me, saying, ‘I’ve prayed for help. I’ve been referred to you. God won’t give me that inspiration, but He will give you that help if you pray for it. Have you prayed for help about this?’ I said, ‘Well, no.’ He said, ‘Pray for help about how to help me.’
“I prayed for help and I got nothing. But the man said, ‘Operate on me and God will tell you what to do.’ ”
Elder Nelson said he did not receive the answer — reduce the circumference of the ring -— until the operation was underway. “Then, in my mind, there were dotted lines shown on this ring that holds that tricuspid valve: ‘Take a pleat here, a tuck there.’ It wasn’t perfect, but the patient enjoyed a great result.”
The procedure the young Dr. Nelson used in 1961 subsequently became a standard for that kind of surgery.
“Don’t forget to pray,” Elder Nelson told the graduating doctors.