Who is President Russell M. Nelson? A man of heart, compassion and faith

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Editor’s note: Three years ago, we took readers into an operating room with President Russell M. Nelson with this profile published on Jan. 16, 2018, the day he was introduced as the 17th prophet-leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As fast as the blood flows into the right atrium of President Spencer W. Kimball’s stopped heart, a tube pumps it out of his body and into a machine next to the operating table.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson peers down into the chest cavity. The room smells of cauterized blood vessels and arteries. Not long ago, this was unthinkable. Operating on a live heart was a medical sin when he entered medical school.

The blood streaming into the machine had been returning to President Kimball’s heart after a trip through his body. The machine takes over for the heart and lungs. An oxygenator strips out carbon dioxide and delivers oxygen. Then the heart-lung machine returns the blood to the aorta, which sends it coursing to his brain, fingers and toes.

This is a heart bypass in 1972. Dr. Nelson is one of the procedure’s pioneers. His contributions were crucial to the development of the heart-lung machine that now is keeping President Kimball alive.

Late church President Spencer W. Kimball speaks with Elder Russell M. Nelson, who performed life-saving open-heart surgery on President Kimball and now has followed in his footsteps to become president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. | Nelson family

But this operation is particularly dangerous. He has warned this leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the risk is extremely high. Nobody’s ever tried to stop a 77-year-old man’s heart and repair two separate problems before.

President Kimball initially resigned himself to death. But the reason he is on this operating table with Nelson’s hands in his chest has everything to do with the doctor’s immense self-discipline, world-class surgical skill, faith in God, native curiosity and creativity.

It also describes both men’s loyalty to Jesus Christ and their love for their church and its leaders, a church they would each one day lead.

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President Nelson: A vigorous leader

A recent weekly Thursday meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple is over. Elder M. Russell Ballard, 89, is hobbling — his word — to the elevator on his two knee replacements. Others join him.

President Russell M. Nelson, 93, briskly heads for the stairs. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a nimble 85-year-old, intends to keep up with his friend and quorum president as they start down the circular stairs in the northwest corner of the temple. He doesn’t.

A family photo of President Russell M. Nelson on a swing. | Nelson family

“I grab hold of the bannister to balance me,” Elder Oaks said, “and I skip along as well as I can, and it's always apparent that he can move faster on those stairs than I can. That’s a personal weekly observation of his alertness and physical vigor.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said his fellow quorum members also shake their heads at how President Nelson goes up the stairs: two at a time.

“President Nelson says he’s 93,” said Sheri Dew, a family friend who oversees the Deseret News as executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp., “but I’ve said to him several times, ‘Is that really true? I’d like to see your birth certificate.’”

Forty-five years after operating on President Kimball, President Nelson is the 17th president in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith's leaders announced Tuesday. He follows President Thomas S. Monson, who died Jan. 2.

For a man who more than once has thought his plane was about to crash and who was attacked by armed robbers during an invasion of the church mission home in Mozambique, few people are worried about his health.

Most feel like Elder Oaks. They aspire to keep up with him.

The faith and loyalty of President Nelson

Years ago, Elder Oaks once tried to help lure President Nelson away from Utah. Elder Oaks was a law professor at the University of Chicago in 1965 when the school offered President Nelson an extraordinary package. He would get a raise, a research lab, staff support and full tuition for all of his then nine children at the universities of their choice.

Dallin and June Oaks hosted Russell and Dantzel Nelson at their Chicago home.

“I was awed by his presence,” Elder Oaks said, “and charmed by his wife, Dantzel. She and June got along very well. It was a very pleasant couple of hours together. I was taking the role of an advocate, for which I’d been trained professionally.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks answers questions at his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Nelsons were dazzled by the offer, but when he returned to Salt Lake City, he asked church President David O. McKay for his counsel. President McKay told him he shouldn't take his nine daughters to Chicago.

So, he didn't.

“Our faith was very secure,” he wrote. “We had been privileged to have a prophetic pronouncement, and we were going to be totally obedient.”

Elder Holland said that faith, combined with his abilities as a surgeon and teacher, make “a pretty terrific combination.”

“Who, in seeking the counsel of the brethren, has put their money where their mouth is about who’s a prophet?” Elder Holland said. “If we ask for their opinion, are we willing to take it? That’s a magnificent quality in my mind. One that I’ve seen repeatedly in the childlike humility and simplicity of Russell Nelson’s faith. ... He’s that humble, he’s that childlike, at every level and in virtually every other human relationship that I’ve seen him in. He’s just that pure. He’s just that simple in his faith.”

Follow the prophet

That decision made it possible for President Nelson to be in this operating room with President Kimball seven years later. It smells like a dentist has used a drill during a root canal. Minutes earlier, Dr. Nelson used a saw to divide President Kimball’s breastbone down the middle.

Classical music is playing softly. Dr. Nelson, in green scrubs and a white surgical cap, is peering at President Kimball’s overworked heart. He must replace the defective aortic valve with a prosthetic. Then he will attempt a coronary artery bypass graft.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson holds a model of the human heart. | Nelson family

No one has experience doing both operations on a 77-year-old patient, he had told President Kimball. The operation would “entail extremely high risk.” Wearily, President Kimball, then the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said he was ready to die. That’s when church President Harold B. Lee rose to his feet and pounded his fist on the table.

“Spencer, you are called! You are not to die!” President Lee said. “You are to do everything that you need to do in order to care for yourself and continue to live.”

President Kimball’s decision was the same as President Nelson’s about moving to Chicago. He immediately agreed with the man he revered as a prophet.

“This momentous decision, which shaped the history of the church, was not based on medical recommendation,” President Nelson would say. “It was based strictly on the desire of an apostle of the Lord to be obedient to the counsel of his file leaders in the church. It was based on the inspired direction of the First Presidency of the church in answer to his request.”

The faith and strength of President Nelson

President Nelson still uses his snowblower to clear his neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways. After the trash truck visits the neighborhood each week, he moves up and down the street, walking everyone’s garbage cans from the street back up to their homes.

“He’s a cat on a hot tin roof,” said his son, Russell Jr.

Family and friends say he clearly enjoys great genetics but keeps himself healthy with constant activity. Chiefly, he walks often and he walks fast. He skis most Mondays — an off day for church leaders, who minister nearly every weekend — often from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m., often 10, 12 or 15 runs. When Russell Jr. suggests they stop for lunch, he tells them it’s a beautiful day and keeps going.

He has a theory about his stamina. Standing for hours and hours in operating rooms built up a certain kind of strength.

His strength was evident when his aging, yearslong friend and colleague in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, started to shake and fade during a general conference talk broadcast around the world in 2007. President Nelson walked up behind him, hiked up his belt, steadied him with one hand, and bore his weight for the next five minutes.

President Russell M. Nelson fishing. | Nelson family

It’s also evident on fishing trips in Ketchikan, Alaska.

“We stop and bottom-fish for halibut,” said Elder Mervyn B. Arnold, a General Authority Seventy. “When you pull up a large halibut from the bottom of the ocean, it’s like pulling up a semitruck tire of cement. He just pulled it up. He didn’t ask for help. He’s vigorous, and he gets excited about it, and he’s smiling all the time."

Fishing begins at 7 a.m. and stretches into late afternoon, but after each long, physically exhausting day of fishing in July 2016, President Nelson asked Elder Arnold some variation of, “Well, what else would you like to do today?” One day they went to watch bears fish in the area’s inland salmon spawning streams.

“This is a unique man,” said Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer, a physician and General Authority Seventy who, until recently, oversaw the health of the faith’s 70,000 missionaries.

President Nelson grieves when he sees “divinely created bodies used carelessly.” He believes careless use or abuse damages the body’s ability to heal itself.

“Our bodies will last us a long time if we care for them well,” he says.

Challenges ahead for President Nelson

Sometime last year, without a formal announcement, the church’s membership surpassed 16 million, according to an official church website. That’s up from 5.6 million when Elder Nelson was ordained an apostle in April 1984.

Despite the gains, the church faces pitched opposition for some of its doctrines and policies, which maintain an eternal perspective. President Nelson himself drew criticism from LGBT activists after the church affirmed one of the faith’s fundamental doctrines, that eternal families are based on marriage between a man and a woman, and clarified that members who enter same-sex marriages are in apostasy. Two months later, in January 2016, President Nelson said the policy clarification was revealed by God.

“There are a lot of things about this work and about this role that don’t win you any popularity contests,” Elder Holland said. “Talk to Jeremiah, listen to Daniel. Some of the saddest literature we have is that correspondence between Mormon and Moroni at the end of their lives,” he said, referring to ancient prophets. “I’m not saying that this is all going to be just peaches and cream, but President Nelson will be gentle, kind, unfailingly kind, but strong, very strong.

“If anybody wonders whether they’re going to see a backbone in all of that gentleness, that will be undeniable when it comes to gospel truth, gospel commandments, what the Lord expects. He knows whose church this is.”

Elder Oaks said the Book of Mormon’s teachings about opposition in all things prepare church leaders for it.

“Given that fact, I think we have to be sensitive to the positions of people who don’t agree with us, and to the reasons. All of that, we need to have a setting in which different points of view can be worked out. I know that President Nelson agrees with the need to handle opposition with respect because I’ve seen him do that in his responsibilities.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is interviewed in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elders Holland, Oaks and Ballard said they expect President Nelson to navigate expanding secular shoals with the skill of a natural diplomat, a trait he has exhibited during a personal ministry that has reached 133 nations. For example, he helped pave the way for church recognition and volunteer and missionary work in Russia and Eastern European countries from 1985-89. He has done the same in Turkey and elsewhere and has dedicated 31 countries for the preaching of the gospel.

Elder Ballard described the world as unraveling, but described President Nelson as ready for the challenge.

“Conflict will go on, and I think President Nelson is terrifically prepared to guide us through it,” he said.

Listening leader

Last month, President Nelson sat quietly during a Thursday morning meeting in the temple while the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles engaged in a productive, extended discussion on a single topic. Elder Holland stopped the discussion and asked his quorum leader for his thoughts.

“I am thinking and I am listening, and I choose not to comment,” President Nelson said.

“Right then, he wanted to hear the others,” Elder Holland said. “He wanted to think, he wanted to listen. He wanted to listen to the Lord, and that’s not a bad lesson for all of us that we’re probably not learning much if we’re doing all the talking.”

President Russell M. Nelson stands in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Family and friends called President Nelson a tolerant, kind and compassionate listener. Elder Schwitzer says President Nelson always gives his undivided attention.

“He listens with such an intensity I’ve never seen it matched by anyone.”

Elder Arnold was the personal beneficiary of President Nelson’s ministerial listening. He was among many men who gathered for brief interviews as President Nelson reorganized a stake presidency in Taylorsville. He asked Elder Arnold about his wife and children. Then he asked Elder Arnold if the family had any other children.

“He knew there was something more. I said, ‘Well, I have one boy who passed away,’” Elder Arnold recalls. “He just said, ‘Tell me about it.’ For the next 30 minutes he listened, ministered and salved a deep wound. I left that interview feeling the healing balm of the Savior upon me.”

Elder Schwitzer attended a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve in which they reviewed the missionary age change and the use of electronic devices in missionary work. President Nelson listened to respectful concerns that were appropriate in the context to the meeting.

“Quietly he listened and then came this response, ‘My brethren, remember why we made these decisions. We made it to save the next generation of the church.’ That statement has echoed in my mind,” Elder Schwitzer said. “President Nelson is focused on the missionary and the effect of these experiences on these young peoples’ lives.”

Gorgeous organ

A heart’s four valves open and close more than 100,000 times a day, over 36 million times a year without needing rest or repair. It’s a gorgeous organ, President Nelson says.

“Each day,” he wrote in his 1979 autobiography, “it pumps enough fluid to fill a 2,000-gallon-tank car and performs work equivalent to lifting a 150-pound man to the top of the Empire State Building while consuming about 4 watts, less energy than used by the smallest light bulb in our home.”

Dr. Russell M. Nelson performs cardiac surgery. | Nelson family

Part of his motivation to specialize in heart disease was watching as rheumatic heart disease caused the decline and death of Nettie Davis, the wife of a friend, neighbor and colleague at the University of Minnesota. President Nelson had graduated from high school at 16 and medical school at 22 and brought his young bride east to seek a doctorate in medicine.

Minnesota was the hotbed of research into open-heart surgery, and he proved to be a gifted researcher for Clarence Dennis, who built a team to develop an artificial heart-lung machine. Naively, young President Nelson thought the job would be easy. But teams had to engineer the machine themselves. When they finally managed to sustain dogs briefly, they later died of a mysterious ailment.

Dennis left President Nelson in charge of the lab while he left on an extended trip overseas. When Dennis returned, his protege had found the problem. The lab’s cleaning process wasn’t eliminating bacteria. President Nelson developed a purification process. The discovery and solution became the basis of his thesis and multiple published articles in medical journals, the first of more than 70 peer-reviewed papers he would publish.

Dennis and a colleague used the team’s machine to perform the first open-heart operation on a human being in 1951. The patient died, but the principles were used in the first successful operation in 1953.

“It marked the important transition point in surgical history between gaining access to the open, beating heart and knowing what to do once that access had been achieved,” President Nelson wrote in his autobiography. “A whole new world of the possibility of surgical repair of the heart had been opened up.”

President Nelson was the first to perform the operation west of the Mississippi in 1955, when he used an oxygenator he designed to make Utah the third U.S. state to host successful open-heart surgery.

He performed nearly 7,000 operations before his surgical career ended with the call to serve as an apostle.

“(He’s) right up there along with the biggest legends in cardiothoracic surgery,” says Dr. Craig Selzman, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Utah and a professor of surgery.

Surrounded by women

With nine daughters, a daughter-in-law and, after the loss of his first wife of 59 years, Dantzel White, his marriage of nearly 12 years to Wendy Watson, his friends and fellow church leaders believe President Nelson is uniquely prepared.

Video: Sister Wendy Nelson highlights 3-year ministry of President Nelson

Sheri Dew, who served in the Relief Society general presidency from 1997 to 2002, says he has a deep appreciation for the gifts of women.

“President Nelson has been surrounded by magnificent women, beginning with his wife Dantzel and, upon her death, his second marriage to Wendy,” she said. “But he also has nine splendid daughters and a daughter-in-law, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. He believes that women are extremely important to the church, to the family, to society, to the world. I’m excited for the church to know more about that.”

President Russell M. Nelson with daughter Sylvia and great grandchildren. | Nelson family

Church leaders recently have emphasized women’s voices in teacher councils, ward councils and stake councils. In August 2015, the church added women to three of the leading committees of the church — the Priesthood Executive Council, the Missionary Executive Council and the Temple and Family History Executive Council.

Two months later, President Nelson encouraged women in the church to step forward, speak up and speak out in ward and stake councils, their homes, the community and the church.

“We need women who know how to make important things happen by their faith and who are courageous defenders of morality and families in a sin-sick world,” he said.

Elder Holland said the new church president’s lifelong education about women in his family life will make him exceptional.

“I believe that Russell Nelson will be as sensitive to and as responsive to and as anticipatory about the role of women in the church as any man who has been or will yet be, someday, the president of the church,” he said.

Russell Nelson Jr., the chief financial officer at ThomasARTS in Salt Lake City, said his father directly taught him to treat his mother, sisters, wife and daughter with respect.

“And,” he said, “I get the impression that it wouldn’t have been any different had there been 10 sons. We all would have been taught the same thing. There’s nothing more sacred than the woman’s role in the family and in the world.”

Faith and works

In 1985, new church President Ezra Taft Benson handed out new assignments to the Quorum of the Twelve in the first Thursday temple meeting after he was set apart.

“I want you to open all the countries of Eastern Europe for the preaching of the gospel,” he told President Nelson, then a junior apostle.

Dew said she heard him tell the story of his reaction: “I thought to myself, ‘I’m a surgeon. I’m sitting next to Dallin Oaks, an attorney. He’s the one who knows how to open countries. I don’t know how to open countries.’ Then I said to myself, ‘The prophet has faith in me and has given me an assignment.’ So I went to work.”

President Russell M. Nelson reflects upon his new appointment as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He made nearly 30 trips to Eastern Europe and what was then the Soviet Union in fewer than five years, but by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he had reported to President Benson that almost every country in Eastern Europe had acknowledged the church and accepted missionaries.

“I think he is a very important combination of faith and works,” Dew said. “He’s very bright and inclined to learn and to seek information on his own, but he combines that with a sure knowledge that at some point the Lord will open the way. And that is a very powerful combination in President Nelson.”

Dew asked him what he learned from his experiences in Eastern Europe. He responded simply.

“That the Lord likes effort,” he said.

“The lesson,” she said, “is that we work and work and do everything we can, and ultimately we don’t open the doors, the Lord opens the doors.”

President Nelson: A family man

President Nelson did not serve a full-time mission as a young man because of World War II, but few people know that he served as a Temple Square missionary for a decade. From 1955 to 1965, he provided tours and introduced people to the church from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. each Thursday.

He estimates that he spoke to between 12,000 and 25,000 people.

He also has sent out 76 missionaries from his family. With two births last week, the Nelsons now number 10 children, 57 grandchildren and 116 great-grandchildren.

President Russell M. Nelson with a grandson. | Nelson family

His work-life-ministry balancing could resemble the 1950 movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” based on the real-life story of the large Gilbreth family and the head of the household, a pioneer in the field of motion study and efficiency.

Unlike that father, though, President Nelson did not resist his daughters’ desires for bobbed hair and cosmetics.

In fact, for several years he curled their hair.

When his wife, Dantzel, joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, she had to leave early on Sunday mornings for the tabernacle.

“We’d line up by the bathroom,” said Sylvia Nelson Webster. “He’d take these pink spongy curlers out, and our hair would be all over the place, just curls everywhere. He’d comb it as best he could, put a clip in it or an elastic and stick a bow in it. He sent us through like an assembly line, and we’d look pretty reasonable. Bless his heart for doing it. He did the best he could when it was eight against one.”

Family parties

Each month, the massive Nelson family gathers at a different home to celebrate the month’s birthdays and anniversaries. President Nelson greets each family by name and with a hug. If someone has said something nice about one of them during his travels throughout the church he shares it.

“He’ll say, ‘As a grandfather, that just makes my buttons burst!” said Katie Irion Owens, 40, a homemaker with a nursing degree and the mother of four children in South Jordan.

Nelson family ski outing. | Nelson family

“He is the most tenderhearted, loving, generous, kind, thoughtful, caring grandfather,” she said. “I’m grateful to be his granddaughter, and I know that love is reciprocated because he shows me.”

One way he does it is by skiing. When he’s going, he emails family members to invite them to join him. Time talking with him on the ski lift is treasured, Nelson Jr. said.

“Eternal families mean everything to President Nelson,” Elder Arnold said.

The one thing Nelson Jr., Webster and Owens want the world to know about their father and grandfather, is that he is funny. Webster’s husband, Dave, said the Nelson home always had multiple suitors in it around curfew. If the boys weren’t leaving on time, he would suddenly appear.

“Did you know you were here?” he’d say.

If they didn’t leave, he’d return.

“Did you know you were still here?”

Painful losses

The Nelsons’ sixth daughter, Emily Nelson Wittwer, died in 1995 of cancer at the age of 37. She had five children with her husband, Brad.

“When Aunt Emily passed away,” Owens said, “I watched my grandfather scoop up her children at the funeral and carry them out.”

Brad Wittwer remarried and has three children with his second wife. Those children are counted as Nelson grandchildren.

Elder Russell M. Nelson and his first wife, Sister Dantzel White Nelson, who died in 2005. | Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Months shy of their 60th wedding anniversary, Sister Nelson died in 2005 at age 78.

“That was deeply saddening, especially for him,” Nelson Jr. said. “We could see that sadness, and that was something that we didn’t always see. It was rare, if ever, that we saw a sad face on our father, and so the passing of our mother, we could tell it was a deep hit for him.”

“He missed her,” Owens said.

After both Emily and Sister Nelson died, Nelson Jr. asked his dad what he could do for him. He said the same thing each time.

“Just keep living the gospel. Go home, hug your children and keep being a good parent.”

“That’s what I recall the most,” Nelson Jr. said, “of some of those trying times that ultimately have strengthened us as a family and our testimonies.”

President Nelson also mourned the deaths of patients. Two young sisters died on his operating table in the 1950s, a tragedy that he once said “literally undid me,” he recalled in an April 2016 general conference talk. The family “harbored lingering resentment toward me and the church” for nearly 60 years.

A spiritual experience led him to reconnect, and the girls’ father and brother returned to activity and were sealed to the girls in a Latter-day Saint temple.

Like President Nelson, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, 67, has a doctorate. They complement each other well, say family and friends.

“After he remarried, there was immediate change in his countenance,” Nelson Jr. said. “The sadness was gone, and it did us all very good to see that happiness back again. Wendy’s been a very wonderful companion to him, and has been by his side for 12 years.

“It’s also been wonderful to see how they love each other. And the things that they are able to do together are much greater than I think he would’ve been able to do alone. And so I, of course as his son and as a person close to him, I can see how he’s been prepared over the years for this position and this calling, and a key part of that is Wendy in his life.”

Calm discipline

In May 2009, armed gunmen invaded the Latter-day Saint mission home in Maputo, Mozambique, where President and Sister Nelson were eating taco salads with the area president, the mission president, their wives and another couple.

The assailants intended to harm President Nelson and take Sister Nelson hostage, she later said. They broke the arm of the mission president’s wife. However, Sister Nelson said she felt peace. President Nelson was unflappable. They sustained superficial injuries and the gunmen fled.

President Russell M. Nelson sits down with a puzzle in his spare time. | Nelson family

Calm would help define him.

Some surgeons blast music, throw instruments and cuss throughout operations. Not Dr. Nelson.

“The interesting thing about Russell Nelson’s operations, which many of us try to duplicate, is that they are very quiet and controlled,” said John Doty, a thoracic and cardiac surgeon at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray and the son of his former partner. “Just quiet, calm, controlled, organized and methodical.”

Elder Arnold believes President Nelson wasn’t born with those attributes.

“These attributes he's worked hard on — faith, charity, love, kindness — and they’ve become second nature,” Elder Arnold said. “He has no guile. He has no agenda other than the agenda of the Savior and our Heavenly Father.”

There is evidence that he has applied strong self-discipline. He remembers his junior high glee club teacher’s admonition, “Don’t waste time, boys. It’s the stuff life’s made of,” and his children say he is always prompt and strict about when he goes to bed and when he awakes.

President Nelson weighs himself daily. If he’s up a pound or two, he walks it off.

His consistent discipline, said Elder Schwitzer, turned a young genius into an accomplished family man, disciple, surgeon and researcher.

On the other hand, President Nelson appears to have been born with curiosity and creativity.

His son-in-law, David Webster, describes pleasant conversations with President Nelson about the wonders of an orange or the moon.

“I have this theory about President Nelson,” Elder Holland said, “and that is that probably from his birth, he's been intrigued with how things tick.” He has applied that to people and the gospel, Elder Holland adds. It's what makes him a renaissance man.”

Elder Arnold said President Nelson is observant, taking in both details and the broader picture.

“He notes everything, from birds to whales and sea lions. It’s like he takes in the whole, panoramic view.”

Making of a prophet

The new Latter-day Saint president has known 10 of the faith’s 16 previous presidents. The first he knew, President Heber J. Grant, added fuel to his burgeoning self-discipline by repeatedly teaching that “when we persist in doing that which is difficult, it becomes easier for us to do.”

99+ announcements and changes in the Church since President Nelson became Prophet

No persistence was needed with his perfect pitch. His high school a cappella choir teacher showed him off at performances around the Salt Lake Valley. She called students from the audience to hit a note on the piano. He identified each note.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, at the dedication of the Brigham City Temple. | Nelson family

His musical acumen has come in handy in his 90s. He regularly has both conducted Quorum of the Twelve meetings and provided the music for them, dashing from the podium to the organ.

He developed a temperament to solve problems. As a surgeon, he put that above credit for patents or new procedures he helped pioneer, and he worked collaboratively with other surgeons, sharing knowledge about new techniques.

“Our competition wasn’t with each other,” he has said. “Our competition was with disease, death and ignorance. Of course we helped each other. We wanted to save lives.”

“I think he’s the man for the hour, the man for this time,” Elder Ballard said.

“He is very wise, he’s very bright, he’s very kind and very thoughtful. He wants to know the facts, and he’s very decisive. I tell people it won't be hard for him to make decisions for the church because anyone that’s had somebody’s heart in their hand — he’s had to make lifesaving decisions his whole life.”


Ten years after he retired, President Nelson returned to the operating room in green scrubs and a white cap. But he wasn’t performing this operation. Instead, he’s standing on a small box, watching over the shoulder of his former partner, Donald B. Doty.

Elder M. Russell Ballard is interviewed in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The patient is Elder M. Russell Ballard, President Nelson’s fellow member of the Twelve.

“He stood over the surgeon for the full time that I was in surgery,” Elder Ballard said. “The professor was watching very carefully what was happening to one of his colleagues. That’s the kind of affection that he has for his brethren. It just endeared him to me all the more. Who better to have his eyes on your heart as it's being bypassed?”

President Nelson operated on numerous church leaders — President Kimball, President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Paul H. Dunn, who had a heart attack just as the procedure was about to begin.

But he also has stood over Doty’s shoulder five times, for bypass procedures for Elder Ballard, President Howard W. Hunter, Elder Robert D. Hales, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin and Elder David B. Haight.

“He did that to demonstrate his loyalty to his fellows of the Twelve,” Donald Doty said. “To be quite honest, I didn’t mind it a bit. I find it very reassuring to have him there.”

It's an example of what Elder Holland calls President Nelson’s “inestimable and unfailing kindness.”

“Of course, that’s what you’d expect from a prophet,” he said. “That’s what we had with President Monson, that’s what we had with President Hinckley and so forth. You certainly are going to see that in Russell M. Nelson. He is a consummate gentleman. He may be the man for whom the word ‘gentleman’ was created.”

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Perfect pitch

With President Kimball on the operating table, President Nelson has implanted the prosthetic aortic valve and completed the coronary artery bypass graft.

Now is the moment of truth. It’s time to shock President Kimball’s heart to restart it. It resumes beating. Simultaneously, he receives an impression that the man on the operating table is the future president of the church.

President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson Nelson in Pennsylvania at the dedication of the newly developed Priesthood Restoration Site in 2015. | Nelson family

He will call it the only flawless operation of his career, likening it to a pitcher who throws a perfect game in baseball. He credits the priesthood blessing he received from the First Presidency.

Twenty months later, President Lee dies unexpectedly. President Kimball becomes the 12th president of the church.

Now, 44 years later, President Kimball’s surgeon is himself the 17th church president.

“Somehow, in all of that is an insight into what I think will be the perfect pitch that Russell Nelson will bring to the leadership of the church,” Elder Holland said. “He, himself, may not be perfect, as no mortal person is, but I think in his leadership and in his insight and what he will go before the Lord to understand and to learn and to hear, he’s going to strike a perfect pitch.

“I, for one, am very, very eager to see his presidential administration unfold. That’s the way he’s been with us in our quorum. That’s the way he’s going to be with the whole church. Gentle, kind, bright, insightful and striking a perfect pitch. It’s going to be an exciting time.”

Contributing: Ben Lockhart