Editor’s note: A profile of President Russell M. Nelson, the 17th President of the Church, when he was called to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This article was written by Joseph Walker and ran in the April 22, 1984, edition of the Church News.
How much “heart” did it take for Russell M. Nelson, internationally respected heart surgeon, to set aside the investment of decades in his medical career to accept a call to the Council of the Twelve?
Not much, said Elder Nelson, who was ordained an apostle during a meeting of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve in the Salt Lake Temple April 12, six days after the call was issued.
“I didn’t even ask President Hinckley, ‘Are you sure?’” said Elder Nelson of the call. “My faith is just that profound and simple. When the Lord speaks through His prophet, my mind puts an exclamation point behind it, not a question mark.”
To appreciate fully the spiritual commitment that made such a decision so simple, one must understand Elder Nelson’s commitment to medicine.
“Next to motherhood,” he said, “the privilege of being a physician is as satisfying a calling as there could be. How can you love God and serve Him and your fellow man more sincerely than you can as a selfless physician?”
For young Russell Nelson, the decision to be a doctor, made when he was about 15 years old, was an easy one. “I’ve always wanted to know what ‘truth’ is,” he said. “That’s why I gravitated toward the exact sciences — math, chemistry and physics, for example. Nothing is as rewarding for me as tackling a problem and finding out what the truth is.”
His search for truth took him to the University of Utah, where the Salt Lake City native began his march toward a medical degree, with only occasional stops for extracurricular activities.
On one occasion, a teacher at the U. of U. drafted 18-year-old Russell to play a role in “Hayfoot, Stawfoot,” a musical production at the university. “I resisted doing it,” he remembered. “I was more concerned about passing biology than about being in some play.”
But somehow the 18-year-old student was convinced to join the show. As he dragged himself into Kingsbury Hall for the first rehearsal, his nose buried in a book, he happened to glance at the stage where a brunette actress with a voice as lovely as her face was singing.
“Who’s that?” he asked the teacher who had enlisted him.
“That’s Dantzel White,” said the teacher. “She’s your leading lady.”
Suddenly, the play became more important to young Nelson. “I had the feeling right then that she would be my wife,” he said.
The Nelsons were married (he proposed to her in a pea patch at the White family home in Perry, Utah) in the Salt Lake Temple Aug. 31, 1945, just two months after he received a bachelor’s degree from the U. of U.
The young couple struggled for the next two years as Elder Nelson studied his way through medical school. Dantzel supported the family by working as a school teacher during the day and as a music store clerk in the evenings. Still, money was tight.
“Once we were in debt about $43 above our resources,” Elder Nelson remembered. “To meet the debt, I picked her up after school, took her to LDS Hospital where we each sold a pint of blood for $25, then I took her to work at the music store. When Dantzel’s mother found out that I was having Dantzel work two jobs and then bleeding her in between, I got the general feeling that she didn’t think her daughter had much of a husband.”
But the family survived the years of medical school. By going to school year-round, Elder Nelson was able to complete the four-year course in three calendar years. He graduated in 1947 with highest honors, a full-fledged M.D. at just 22 years of age.
For the next eight years, Elder Nelson continued his medical training. He served residencies in surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minn., and at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass., and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. All the while, the young surgeon continued his search for medical truth.
“When I was in medical school, I was taught that you should never touch the beating heart because if you did, it would stop,” he said. “And then I read in the Doctrine and Covenants that ‘unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.’ (D&C 88:38.)
“That passage told me that the blessing of a heartbeat is predicated upon obedience to law. So I knew that there were laws pertaining to the beat of a heart. Therefore, if we understood those laws, we might be able to approach the heart with a little more precision.”
He learned those laws well. During the 29 years that elapsed between the completion of his residency and his apostolic calling, Elder Nelson was on the leading edge of heart research and surgery. In 1995, he became the first surgeon to perform open heart surgery in Utah. He pioneered the development of the pump oxygenator, a means of introducing oxygen directly to a patient’s blood during surgery.
He also shared his knowledge with surgeons throughout the world, including India, South America, China and the Soviet Union. He will, in fact, soon spend one month in China in fulfillment of a long standing medical commitment.
Despite the breakneck pace of his busy medical career, he has always made time for the Church and family. His Church service has included assignments as stake president, Sunday School general president and regional representative. And his wife, nine daughters and one son, according to Sister Nelson, “have always known that we come first in his life.”
“Even though he was gone a great deal, the children always knew that he could be reached at any time if they needed him,” she said. “And if he ever sensed that one of the children needed a little one-on-one attention, he arranged to take her with him on a short business trip. Inevitably, she was like a different person when she came back, because she’d had a little time alone with Dad.”
Elder Nelson has also found time to develop his musical talents. Sister Nelson, a 17-year veteran of the Tabernacle Choir, said her husband plays the piano and organ “with great skill.”
“He has said that maybe he will take up organ playing seriously because in the next world there will be no need for heart surgeons,” she said.
But there will be a need for apostles, and that’s the role Elder Nelson will fill for the rest of his life — willingly and happily. “You’re only happy in life if you’re rendering service,” he said. “Whether I’m a surgeon or an apostle, all I need to know is that I’m doing what the Lord wants me to do.
“If I know that, what kind of title I have — doctor or Elder — really doesn’t matter.”