SALT LAKE CITY — Long before President Russell M. Nelson became a household name among Latter-day Saints across the world as one of 15 men considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" in the faith, he was a renowned medical pioneer in the field of heart surgery.

And long before that, he was a dedicated father who along with his first wife, Dantzel White Nelson, was no stranger to sacrifice in their early life together, says his biographer, Elder Spencer J. Condie, an emeritus Seventy in the church.

"First of all, you've got to consider the woman, Dantzel," Condie, the author of the 2003 work titled "Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle," told the Deseret News. "She was willing to forego a lot of earthly rewards during his time of studying, and they both were committed to rearing a family, and they had … six daughters before he actually began practicing.

"His first six daughters thought that sleeping on sleeping cots — on Army cots, (in) sleeping bags — was just the way kids went to bed. And his wife was just very long-suffering and supportive of all of that."

President Nelson was announced Jan. 16 as the new prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following President Thomas S. Monson's death at age 90 on Jan. 2.

The early days as parents may have been lean for the Nelsons, who went on to raise nine daughters and a son together, but by 1951, just four years after President Nelson earned his M.D. from the University of Utah, he was part of a group of medical experts who designed the first ever heart-lung machine used in a human surgery.

It marked a major breakthrough in what would become a long and successful career of highly acclaimed medical trailblazing.

"He was a really, really good surgeon and impacted a lot of people's lives and families," said Dr. Craig Selzman, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Utah and a professor of surgery. "(He's) right up there along with the biggest legends in cardiothoracic surgery, when you think of legends."

Elder Russell M. Nelson is awarded the Heart of Gold award from the Utah Heart Association, Saturday night, April 13, 2002, at the Downtown Hilton.
Elder Russell M. Nelson is awarded the Heart of Gold award from the Utah Heart Association, Saturday night, April 13, 2002, at the Downtown Hilton. | Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

'True pioneer'

Selzman, who has developed a friendship with President Nelson arising from their similar career paths, also called him "someone (who) starts as a true pioneer and brings the field forward."

President Nelson was a key figure in early development of the device, which made open-heart surgery a possibility for modern surgeons, according to Selzman and Condie.

"His wife (Dantzel) helped him develop a heart and lung machine that was small enough and compact enough to function in an operating room," Condie said. "So he was not just a surgeon, but he was also a bioengineer."

In 1955, President Nelson performed open-heart surgery on a 39-year-old Price woman, the first such procedure performed in Utah.

At the time, Utah "was only the third state in the United States to (get) a heart surgery using this method," Selzman told the Deseret News.

In 1960, President Nelson treated what is called a tricuspid valve regurgitation, which at the time was a highly advanced surgical undertaking and whose successful completion he later credited to a divine answer to prayer.

"He attributes much of (his surgery success) to inspiration," said Dr. Donald Doty, himself a retired heart surgeon who practiced with President Nelson at LDS Hospital in 1983 and 1984, shortly before the apostolic call.

President Nelson was at the height of his surgical prowess when he was called to the apostleship, according to Condie.

"The year before he was called to be an apostle, he performed 360 open heart operations and his mortality rate was about 1 percent," he said.

Selzman agrees that President Nelson was still hitting his lengthy stride as a surgeon when he sacrificed the remainder of his career to accept his calling as an apostle.

"He really was entering the prime of his career and, as you know, when you get called, you get called, (and) … you just move onto (your) next life," Selzman said. "He probably still had 20 something years of surgery left in him."

All these years later, when President Nelson talks about surgery, Selzman said, "he gets a twinkle in his eye."

At the University of Utah., President Nelson continues to be the longest acting director of the residency and fellowship training program for aspiring heart surgeons, according to Selzman. He called President Nelson "the consummate teacher" and said he "was very much involved with education, going back to the '50s … as far as training the next generation of surgeons."

Doty said he continued to look to President Nelson as a mentor after the two were no longer practicing together. In fact, he said, the two felt so comfortable with one another that President Nelson would stand literally almost ear to ear with Doty while the latter performed heart surgeries on multiple high-ranking LDS leaders, including former Church President Howard W. Hunter, as well as two other apostles, Elder David B. Haight and Elder Robert D. Hales.

"Each time I operated (on) them, Elder Nelson would come to the operating room and stand on a box looking over my right shoulder with his face almost next to mine, my right ear almost touching his left ear," Doty said. "You think that would make you really nervous and on edge, (but) it was really reassuring to have him there on every occasion, and it was a wonderful experience."

President Nelson was also called on to perform surgeries in scores of countries, Condie said, including a procedure on a prominent opera performer in China. "He was not just a surgeon, he was an educator" during those international visits, he said.

Leadership as surgeon

As a surgeon, President Nelson used a world-class memory and airtight organizational skills, Doty remembers.

"He's just an amazing man. He never forgets to remember important things," he said. "He's extremely well organized, and one of the things I noticed when I was in practice with him is that he held to a standard (of) — always do what is right and never do what is politically expedient."

Doty, who also reported to President Nelson while serving as chairman of Missionary Department Health Services for the LDS Church from 2005 through 2013, described his leadership style as one with high expectations and an intuition that is always "one step ahead."

"He doesn't dictate things, he just expects people to do the right things, and if they're not right, he picks up on it right away and helps them get it right," he said.

Doty later added, "He is very, very well prepared for what he is going to do."

Said Condie of President Nelson's leadership, "He's very, very demanding of himself but very, very compassionate of others who try."

Condie added that in aspects both personal and professional, "the character of Russell M. Nelson is just attention to detail and following through."

"I've talked with other physicians who've worked with him … and they said he was absolutely unflappable when there was an emergency, a hemorrhage, something wrong with the operation," Condie said. "He was absolutely cool and collected the whole time. He never lost it — great self-control."

What sticks out to Selzman in President Nelson's leadership in medicine has been his personal touch.

"Everything to him is personal. It's not another operation — it's another person," Selzman said. "I don't think it was ever about getting through the day."

His own career

During his time as a general authority, President Nelson has reflected several times on his surgical career, though he has also said he believes the priesthood of God is much more efficacious than secular medical prowess.

“Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies,” President Nelson is quoted as saying in the Ensign magazine in 1984. “With an education they can do a little more; with advanced medical degrees and training, a little more yet can be done. The real power to heal, however, is a gift from God.

"He has deigned that some of that power may be harnessed via the authority of his priesthood to benefit and bless mankind when all man can do for himself may not be sufficient.”

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President Nelson has also shared accounts from his career that have emotionally and spiritually left an impression on him, such as his unsuccessful surgeries performed on two young sisters, who each died from their congenital heart disease in the 1950s despite his best efforts, a tragedy that he once said "literally undid me."

Almost six decades later, he recounted a moving spiritual experience helped him reconnect with some of those girls' loves ones who he recalled had previously "harbored lingering resentment toward me and the church." In that experience, President Nelson said in April 2016, "I was awakened by those two little girls from the other side of the veil."

"Though I did not see or hear them with my physical senses, I felt their presence. Spiritually, I heard their pleadings. Their message was brief and clear: 'Brother Nelson, we are not sealed to anyone! Can you help us?' Soon thereafter, I learned that their mother had passed away, but their father and younger brother were still alive."

President Nelson said in his retelling that he sought out the father and brother and talked about the spiritual experience, expressing to them that he would be "honored to perform sealing ordinances" for the family in an LDS temple, which later happened. President Nelson called the event "a sublime experience" and said "many hearts were healed that day."

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