In December 1964, then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball and Elder LeGrand Richards, both members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, were assigned to call a new president of Salt Lake City’s Bonneville Stake.
As is still the process today, they interviewed many priesthood leaders in the stake who might be considered for such a calling. During the interviews, they heard one name — Dr. Russell Nelson — mentioned repeatedly. Each suggestion, however, was almost always accompanied by a disclaimer that Dr. Nelson was too busy to accept such a calling.
He was a pioneering surgeon who published frequently and was director of Utah’s cardiovascular and thoracic surgical training program. He also spent hours in postoperative vigil with his aortic valve surgery patients — who had, at that time, a high mortality rate.
Still, when Elder Kimball and Elder Richards spoke to Dr. Nelson, who was serving on the high council, he responded in definitive terms. “Of course, I have time,” he said. “I’ll make time. If I have to change professions, I will do it. If I am called, I will serve.”
Dr. Nelson was indeed called as stake president and set apart by Elder Kimball, who promised him that because of his service, the quality of his work as a surgeon would increase and the mortality rate of those receiving aortic valve operations would decrease.
As prophesied, over the next year, the mortality rate for Dr. Nelson’s aortic valve surgery patients fell dramatically.
With the Church releasing President Kimball’s journals this month, it is interesting to reflect on the unique relationship between President Nelson and President Kimball. Highlights of their close association are well documented:
- When President Harold B. Lee died unexpectedly at age 74 in 1973, Dr. Nelson — knowing Elder Kimball would be the next leader of the Church — went to his side. “I thought maybe you needed me,” he simply said.
- In 1976, Dr. Nelson, then general Sunday School president, and his wife, Sister Dantzel Nelson, accompanied President Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, on a historic trip to the South Pacific. They witnessed miracles, including President Kimball’s participation in member meetings, government visits and press interviews despite a sudden and intense onset of bilateral pneumonia.
- In December 1978, President Nelson attended a seminar for regional representatives and general authorities. He heard President Kimball plead with leaders to study Mandarin to prepare to serve the people in China. That night President Nelson and Sister Dantzel Nelson committed to study the language. In the months that followed, President Nelson’s familiarity with Mandarin opened the door to numerous invitations to teach Chinese doctors how to perform open-heart operations.
- On the night of Wednesday, April 4, 1984, President Gordon B. Hinckley was summoned to President Kimball’s downtown apartment to hear him declare, in a moment of clarity despite continuing illness, that Brother Nelson and Brother Dallin H. Oaks should be called as new members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
- Elder Nelson joined with members of the family and President Hinckley when President Kimball departed mortality on Tuesday Nov 5, 1985, and Elder Nelson spoke at President Kimball’s funeral on Nov 9, 1985.
Perhaps most meaningfully, the relationship of these two men who would each become President of the Church was forged because of Elder Kimball’s failing heart.
Eight years after Elder Kimball set apart Dr. Nelson as a new stake president — blessing him with increased ability as a surgeon — Dr. Nelson performed a complex operation on the Apostle. The surgery — aortic valve replacement and coronary artery bypass grafts — was a literal manifestation of the sacred promise offered years earlier to a busy doctor who accepted a demanding calling.
Then 77 years old and in congestive heart failure, Elder Kimball knew the operation came with significant risk. But without the operation, the Church leader’s life expectancy was estimated in terms of days or weeks, not months or years.
Elder Kimball met with President Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner, a counselor in the First Presidency, to discuss his health concerns. Dr. Nelson and Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson were asked to join the meeting to lend their medical expertise to the discussion. Dr. Nelson did not recommend the procedure, but President Lee encouraged Elder Kimball to do all he could to extend his life, and the surgery was scheduled.
President Nelson has admitted he felt a “crushing pressure” to perform the operation.
The details of that lifesaving operation, which opened the way for then-Elder Kimball to commence serving as President of the Church two years later — are recorded in President Nelson’s autobiography, “From Heart to Heart.” President Kimball personally insisted that book be written, reviewed portions in detail and asked Dr. Nelson to pen a foreword that he [President Kimball] would edit and sign.
The unique relationship between these two Prophets has been described in this way. “President Nelson saw President Kimball in the worst of times, particularly severe ill health, but he also witnessed him rise up as a Prophet of God. Because of their unique doctor-patient relationship, Dr. Nelson was in a position, time and again, to talk [with Elder Kimball] as they walked after surgery, to sit at his bedside and to literally hold the Prophet’s life — as well as his heart — in his hands.”
President Nelson could have added much to that tender analysis. Instead, however, he described his relationship with President Kimball in sacred simplicity: “We had total honor, respect and love for each other,” he said.
Note: Details of this article came from President Nelson’s biography, “Insights From a Prophet’s Life.”
— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.