Responding to the call for doctors during the Korean War, a newly-minted Latter-day Saint medical officer named Lt. Russell M. Nelson reported for duty at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was 1951, and Lt. Nelson and his wife, Dantzel, had just arrived from the Midwest, where he had been in his fifth year of surgical training at the University of Minnesota.
Almost 60 years later that same physician, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, returned to what is now Walter Reed Army Medical Center on April 17 to speak to staff, medical students and patients about his experiences during those years. The event was part of this year’s centennial celebration at Walter Reed.
The driving force behind Elder Nelson’s recent visit was Walter Reed historian Sherman L. Fleek, now retired from the military and a member of the Winchester Virginia Stake high council. He introduced Elder Nelson as a father and husband, a healer and a man of God whose life has been dedicated to service and excellence.
“Instantly, many memories come to mind,” Elder Nelson said, describing his feelings upon his return to Walter Reed. “This was my home base from 1951 to 1953. I started my service here as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps. Later, I was promoted to the rank of captain, not through any meritorious action, but because I had managed to live 20 months in grade. Two of our children were born here at Walter Reed. Their dear mother was comfortably cared for in General Pershing’s suite.”
Elder Nelson said that even though he was a physician of low military rank, “my assignment in the hospital allowed me to direct the surgical work of men of higher age and rank. I was privileged to associate with Maj. Gen. Wallace Graham, personal physician to President Harry S Truman.”
Elder Nelson noted how he “first set foot on these grounds exactly 100 years after the birth of Walter Reed,” a remarkable man born in 1851 who earned two medical degrees before he was 20 years old.
“Research work under Dr. Reed’s leadership was largely responsible for stemming the mortality rates from yellow fever during the building of the Panama Canal,” said Elder Nelson, explaining how Dr. Reed discovered that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes.
Maj. Walter Reed passed away from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis at the age of 51 on Nov. 23, 1902. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Flashing back to 1951, during the early phases of the Korean War, Elder Nelson recalled how Col. William S. Stone, the commandant of the Graduate School at Walter Reed, and others envisioned an innovative step in treating the wounded.
“To implement their vision,” said Elder Nelson, “they searched for a leader — a man with experience in clinical investigation in the Mediterranean Theater of World War II. His name was Dr. Fiorindo A. Simeone, professor of surgery at the Western Reserve University of Cleveland. He was to head a four-man team who were to visit the Korean Theater of War to determine the prominent problems confronting the military surgeons, and to consider the possibility and feasibility of instituting research programs in the combat area. In addition to Dr. Simeone, the team included Maj. Curtis P. Artz, Capt. George E. Schreiner, and 1st Lt. Russell M. Nelson.”
Using a slide presentation of photographs and home movies taken more than 57 years ago, Elder Nelson recounted his tour of duty that included visiting the five Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, two major evacuation hospitals, field station hospitals, a prisoner of war camp and larger evacuation hospitals in Japan, Hawaii and the mainland United States.
Elder Nelson told how on one occasion near the battlefront they were fired upon by enemy artillery fire. “Fortunately,” he said, “the enemy projectiles missed us.”
He said the nature of his assignment provided little contact with the Korean people. “However, when we did have an opportunity to do so, we enjoyed that privilege. We felt the communication gap; we couldn’t understand them; they couldn’t understand us.
“Yet we could feel the nobility of their souls,” he said.
The report of his group’s study highlighted the issues of wound infections, dehydration, post-traumatic renal insufficiency and vascular injuries. These findings led to additional research as well as immediate changes in the care of the wounded, he said.
“History and memories are of greatest value when they converge with current efforts to improve the future,” Elder Nelson said in reflection. “The Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been at the center of progress in military medicine for a century of service.”
Such early experiences at Walter Reed set the stage for Elder Nelson’s later contributions in medicine. A pioneer in cardiovascular surgery, Elder Nelson was part of the team that developed an artificial heart-lung machine, used for the first time in a human open-heart operation in March 1951.
After his military commitment, Elder Nelson continued his training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He later became a renowned and innovative cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at the University of Utah and LDS Hospital. He was the first doctor in Utah to perform open-heart surgery with a heart-lung machine. He was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1984.
Following his presentation at Walter Reed hospital, many in the audience thanked Elder Nelson for helping them appreciate their medical and military heritage. Dr. Hee-Choon Lee, a physician and Korean-America, also thanked Elder Nelson for service to his native country of Korea.
“The buildings have changed,” noted Elder Nelson at a reception later that day, “but self-sacrifice and service are still hallmarks of life here.… The spirit of Walter Reed is undaunted.”
Chaplain Charles Howell, North Atlantic Regional Medical Command chaplain, noted how the centennial activities were an opportunity to honor heroes of an earlier generation. He respectfully titled Elder Nelson “an aging warrior” and prayed that those currently serving at the center would be “as faithful as their forebears in healing the sick.”
Col. Norvell Van Coots, MD, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, welcomed Elder Nelson as “an important member of the Walter Reed family” and presented him with a special commander’s coin to honor his service.