Elder Nelson, pioneer heart surgeon, honored

Like Brigham Young, Elder Russell M. Nelson made a career of pioneering.

Honored for his achievements, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve was compared to the early Church leader; both of whom "prepared the way for those to come."

Elder Nelson is presented with "Heart of Gold" award from the American Heart Association.
Elder Nelson is presented with “Heart of Gold” award from the American Heart Association. Credit: Photo by Scott G. Winterton

While Brigham Young was a pioneer in settling the Great Basin a century and a half ago, Elder Nelson was a pioneer in open heart surgery, involved in research in the late 1940s and in helping to establish the discipline in Utah beginning in 1955 and throughout his medical career.

For these efforts and other contributions, he was presented on April 13 with the 2002 Heart of Gold Award from the American Heart Association. A luncheon was held in his honor at the American Heart Association's symposium, in which an overview of his medical work was presented, and a banquet was held that evening at the Salt Lake Hilton where he was presented the lifetime award by his associates in cardiac surgery, Dr. Donald B. Doty and Dr. Kent W. Jones.

In attendance to give him a standing ovation were many of his colleagues in medicine, the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Also present were his wife, Dantzel White Nelson, their children and spouses and one of their 53 grandchildren, a baby boy just three weeks old.

President Gordon B. Hinckley gave the concluding address, paying tribute to the American Heart Association, to Robert L. Rice, founder of a chain of fitness centers, a Church member and philanthropist, who was the recipient of the association's "Heart of Utah Award," and to Elder Nelson.

Of the association, President Hinckley said: "The research you foster, the educational program you carry forward, and the miraculous service your members render add immeasurably to the well-being of all of us."

Of Brother Rice, he said, "He is a genius in promoting fitness. . . . What a great soul you are, Robert. You have added to the longevity of millions of men and women across the land. You have served magnificently in ecclesiastical responsibilities, and have been generous in your contributions to community enterprises."

Of Elder Nelson, President Hinckley said: "You are a man of great learning, recognized over the world for your medical skills. . . . Your achievements in medicine are so very many, and your contributions have been so remarkable that we cannot possibly enumerate them.

"You have gone across the world imparting your skills to surgeons in many lands. Not content with demonstrating procedures to others, you have learned their languages. You speak French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. I have listened to you and been amazed at your fluency.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson participates in lab operation in 1951 at University of Minnesota.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson participates in lab operation in 1951 at University of Minnesota. Credit: Photo courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson

"You are a man of great faith. . . . Through faith you have moved ever forward and upward in the remarkable course of your life."

President Hinckley also paid tribute to Sister Nelson as "the polar star of your life. What a treasure she is. You are the father of a wonderful family where love and appreciation reign."

Elder Nelson and his wife met at the University of Utah when he was pressed to be in a play, and she had the lead part. He had graduated from the school at age 22. After their marriage, to pay the bills, she worked two jobs and they sold their blood, something that led the young medical student to suspect that Dantzel's mother "didn't think her daughter had much of a husband."

They then traveled to Minnesota where he was associated with Dr. Owen H. Wangensteen and a team developing a heart-lung machine. There, he earned a Ph.D. degree in 1954. He was on the team of physicians that built the heart-lung machine used in the first open heart surgery in Minneapolis in 1951.

His work with the heart-lung machines was interrupted by the Korean War, but he continued to serve in research. He visited every MASH unit in Korea and field hospitals as a representative of the U.S. Army.

When the war was over, the young doctor and his family moved to Boston, then to Minneapolis, then returned to Salt Lake City. Here, another important pioneering feat occurred. As an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah Medical School, he worked at the Salt Lake County Hospital and built his own twin pump heart-lung machine. The lung action was accomplished by a bubbler, made of a nipple from an Even-Flo baby bottle with a latex membrane pierced many times by Sister Nelson and her sewing needles. The first operation made Nov. 9, 1955, on a 39-year-old patient was a success. Utah became the third state in the nation where open heart surgery was performed. That machine, improved after each operation, was used until years later when manufactured machines became available.

Twin-pump heart-lung machine was used in 1955 for first open heart surgery in Utah.
Twin-pump heart-lung machine was used in 1955 for first open heart surgery in Utah. Credit: Photo courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson

The physician became a trainer to others and many other operations were performed in the state.

As the procedure developed, he continued to pioneer, buoyed by his faith. He published more than 100 scientific papers over his career. He also served as stake president and Sunday School general president.

In 1980, he opened a new frontier. He traveled to mainland China and began training Chinese physicians with modern techniques in then-primitive conditions.

"In 1984, when called as an apostle, he was called to full-time service," said Dr. Doty. "He then traded in his skills as cardiac surgeon for those of a priesthood leader and healer of human spirit and heart. Dr. Nelson has been out of practice for 18 years but there are a large number of surgeons in our specialty who still remember him for his goodness, his kindness, his professionalism, his contributions."

Many tributes were offered.

"He maintained his integrity and he was always himself," said Dr. Jones. "He never let the little things of life fall through the cracks."

Elder Cecil O. Samuelson Jr., of the Presidency of the Seventy, former dean of the University of Utah Medical School, said: "I think if you were to ask him of all the things that he feels most strongly about, and accomplishments that he has made, his family would be the top of the list."

Responding to the applause, Elder Nelson said, "All that I am or might become can only be because of my wife."

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