SALT LAKE CITY — When LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson entered medical school in 1948, operating on a live heart sounded like science fiction.
But the decorated heart surgeon said Wednesday that divine law, not science fiction, was the basis for the innovations that led Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to award him with the inaugural lifetime achievement governor's medal for science and technology.
"Scientific research is the discovery of what God's laws are," President Nelson said, "and then you can manipulate them and use them to your advantage."
Herbert, Utah's 17th governor, listed some of the major medical innovations pioneered by President Nelson, 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during his career in cardiothoracic surgery and research.
"We all know about his religious and humanitarian service, but we ought to remember and not forget his great service in the medical and scientific field," Herbert said as he presented the award during the Utah Technology Innovation Summit in the ballroom of the Marriott Downtown at City Creek.
Herbert listed three major firsts from President Nelson's career. He performed:
• The first open-heart surgery west of the Mississippi, in Utah in 1955, when the procedure was being done in only two other states.
• The first pediatric open-heart surgery in 1956.
• The first surgical intervention for tricuspid regurgitation, a disorder that allows blood to flow backward into the right upper heart chamber.
Perhaps most important, President Nelson was a key member of a University of Minnesota team that developed the heart-lung machine, which changed the course of medical practice forever by allowing surgeons to stop the human heart and perform open-heart surgery while the machine bypassed the heart and circulated blood throughout the body.
"This innovation enables the open-heart surgeries done every day, that have become commonplace in hospitals throughout the world," Herbert said.
After a long standing ovation, President Nelson said he recently shared the story of another important advancement with University of Utah medical students.
He and the other team members at Minnesota discovered they could stop the heart by increasing the ratio of potassium to sodium. After surgery, they learned they could start the heart again by profusing it with blood containing the normal potassium-sodium balance.
During the presentation, someone asked, "What if that doesn't work?"
"It always works," President Nelson said joyfully. "It's according to divine law. I then learned indeed what I learned in Sunday School: Whenever you receive a blessing from God, it's because of obedience to the law upon which it is predicated."
Herbert presented the award to President Nelson, one of four recipients of the 31st Governor's Medals for Science and Technology presented in partnership with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative and the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
President Nelson performed about 7,000 operations and published more than 70 peer-reviewed scientific papers before he set down his scalpel in 1984 to become an LDS apostle.
Herbert said President Nelson was revered as a teacher, mentor and colleague.
"His love of all people is demonstrated in his commitment to train future surgeons with innovation and teaching them to be innovators throughout his career," Herbert said, "which has graced Utah with generations of talented cardiothoracic surgeons, for which we are all beneficiaries. We honor a true medical pioneer."