JINAN, Shandong, China — A Chinese icon's heart was failing, and his doctors trusted a single surgeon with their patient's life. They didn't realize how unusual it would be for their friend to set aside his new role as an LDS Church apostle to fly to China and perform the operation.

It was out of the question.

Elder Russell M. Nelson had retired from his storied medical career a year earlier, in 1984, to join the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a full-time, lifetime appointment.

Instead, Elder Nelson suggested flying the patient to Utah for the operation. His Chinese friends said the patient wouldn't survive a trip down the hall to the x-ray room.

Elder Nelson promised to send his former surgical partner in his place. Politely, the Chinese said they only had confidence in Dr. Nelson, not his partner.

After all, he was their dear friend, the man who introduced open-heart surgery to China in 1980, when as a visiting professor who could speak some Mandarin he spent a month living in an apartment that had hot water between 5 and 8 p.m. By day, he trained doctors at a medical school where a man delivered ice through the hospital loaded on a bicycle with muddy wheels.

Stymied, Elder Nelson took the request to his quorum leader, President Ezra Taft Benson, who took it to the church's First Presidency. The answer? Yes, an exception would be made.

Elder Nelson flew to China, to the city of Jinan with its one stoplight, and performed a coronary artery bypass graft that saved the life of opera star Fang Rongxiang.

"That was the last operation I ever did," he said, "in China, in 1985."

'Old friend'

Thirty years later, the ongoing influence in China of the man who in July became the new president of the Quorum of the Twelve is palpable at macro and micro levels. The Shandong University School of Medicine warmly welcomed the 91-year-old President Nelson back last week to honor his contributions. The doctors he trained, the Fang family and dozens of others showered him with gifts and tears and an official declaration that he is an "Old Friend of China."

"There was this wonderful, wonderful feeling of a long-term friendship and relationship renewed in person again," said Elder Gerrit W. Gong, the church's outgoing Asia Area president.

Today, the school where President Nelson pioneered open-heart surgery in the country is now a major medical center where doctors perform 2,000 such operations each year.

The department chair is a man who was an intern for some of the operations President Nelson performed during his training visit in 1980. He thanked President Nelson for inspiring him to specialize in heart surgery.

"President Nelson's influence is moving into multiple generations now," Gong said. "The doctors thanked him for being their teacher and preparing them to teach another generation of doctors. Think of all the people whose lives have been affected and blessed by those procedures."

Fang's son and grandson are grateful for one procedure. The two men, themselves still opera singers, cried gratefully at the sight of the man who gave their father and grandfather five more years of life.

"Thank you for saving the life of my father," the son said. "Thank you for saving the life of my grandfather," the grandson said.

They presented him with calligraphy and artwork depicting President Nelson and his patient, Fang, in his costume as a Chinese opera star.

Learning Chinese

President Nelson also pioneered open-heart surgery in Utah, performing the first such operation in the state in 1955, but the story of how he developed such lasting and meaningful relationships with the Chinese began in 1979 when then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball challenged general authorities and general officers of the faith to learn Mandarin.

President Nelson was the church's General Sunday School president. He accepted President Kimball's challenge and hired a tutor. Later that same year, Dr. Wu Ying-Kai, the father of thoracic surgery in China, extended the invitation to President Nelson to go to China as a visiting professor of surgery.

His limited Chinese helped him both train doctors and honor new friends in 1980, again during another month as a visiting professor in 1984 and in subsequent interactions.

"I took up the challenge," President Nelson said, "and it's been a very significant part of my life, actually, because those relationships have continued. We've had exchange visits since 1985 between the Chinese and those who succeeded me in my surgical practice.

"The Chinese people place a lot of confidence in those relationships of trust that have been built over many years. In the American way of life we have what I call a hit-and-run mentality where we never really get deeply acquainted with very many people. We have short, quick appointments and then run, we catch the airplane and go on to the next appointment. But the Chinese people value those long-term relationships, and I'm really pleased that I'm regarded here as one of their old friends."

The trip was meaningful for Elder Gong, grandson of Chinese immigrants to America who is transitioning to his new church role as one of the seven presidents of the Seventy.

"The room lights up when President Nelson speaks to them in Chinese," Elder Gong said. "The Chinese understand and trust President Russell M. Nelson, because they know him, and they admire him and they love him, and because of that trust, he's respected and able to do things that can only be done by someone who has those very long-term, deep relationships."

That was evident as the medical school honored him. In the best Chinese tradition, Gong said, each person brought something to show love, respect and admiration for their teacher, their friend, their professor — flowers, books, recordings, art, Chinese scrolls.

"It was the most moving tribute," Gong said, "for a wonderful portrait of service to the Chinese people, in Chinese, that started all those years ago."

President Nelson called it a great day.

"It's very significant that after my long career in cardiac surgery, the last surgical operation that I ever did was in the People's Republic of China," he said, adding, "it's very significant, personally, and who knows, the story isn't over yet. We don't know what the future will be."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com