A Prophet's Surgeon:
Russell M. Nelson

by Spencer J. Condie
from the biography,
Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle


While participating in an area conference in Manchester, England, in 1971, President Spencer W. Kimball, who was then acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, confided in Dr. Nelson that he was having anginal pains. When they returned to Salt Lake City, Dr. Nelson referred President Kimball to Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson, who could give him the continuing medical care that is best given by a medical cardiologist. Working together, the two physicians tried to determine the nature of his heart problem. On October 9, 1971, Dr. Nelson performed a selective coronary arteriogram and found that President Kimball's heart was being overworked because of severe aortic valve disease. The overworked heart was being undersupplied with blood because of an obstruction in the main arterial supply line to the cardiac muscle.

Russell solemnly recalled:
"Five months later, the hour of decision approached. Neither Dr. Wilkinson nor I recommended a surgical approach because of the complex nature of the heart operation that would be needed and because of President Kimball's being in congestive heart failure at seventy- seven years of age. So President Kimball called a special meeting with the First Presidency. Invited to the meeting in addition to the First Presidency and Sister Kimball were Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson and myself. President Kimball began the meeting by saying, 'I am a dying man. I can feel my life slipping. At the present rate of deterioration, it is my belief that I can live only about two more months. Now I'd like my medical cardiologist, Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson, to present his views about my health.'"
Dr. Wilkinson reaffirmed President Kimball's statement, explaining that
"because of congestive failure, occasioned by the extra workload on the heart, strained with an incompetent aortic valve and a high- grade obstruction in the most important artery in the heart, spontaneous recovery would be unlikely and death would ensue in the not- too- distant future."
Then President Kimball called on Dr. Nelson to speak, asking,
"What can cardiac surgery offer?"
Dr. Nelson said,
"I indicated that the operation, if it were to be done, would be a compound surgical procedure consisting of two components. First, the defective aortic valve would require removal and replacement with a prosthetic aortic valve. Second, the left anterior descending coronary artery would have to be revascularized with a bypass graft."
President Lee asked,
"What would the risks be with such procedures?"
Dr. Nelson replied,
"We have no experience doing both operations on patients in this age group. Therefore, I cannot give you any risk data based on experience. All I can say is, it would entail extremely high risk."
Then a weary President Kimball said,
"I'm an old man and ready to die. It is well for a younger man to come to the Quorum and do the work I can no longer do."
Elder Nelson described the dramatic reaction of President Lee:
"At that point President Harold B. Lee, speaking for the First Presidency, rose to his feet, pounded his fist to the desk, and said, 'Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything that you need to do in order to care for yourself and continue to live.'"
President Kimball responded,
"Then I will have the operation performed."
Dr. Nelson remembered,
"Sister Kimball wept. When he spoke those words, my heart sank, for the weight of this decision seemed suddenly to pass to me. But this was a remarkable event. This momentous decision, which shaped the history of the Church, was not based on medical recommendation. It was based strictly on the desire of President Kimball, as an Apostle of the Lord, to be obedient to the inspired direction of the First Presidency of the Church."
After this momentous decision had been made, a brief discussion followed regarding the timing of the operation. It was March 1972, and Dr. Nelson recommended postponing the operation until after general conference. The decision was made to perform the operation on April 12.
"President Kimball attended only one of the seven sessions of general conference in April 1972," Russell recalled. "His breathlessness and inability to exert himself because of his congestive heart failure forced him to listen to the other sessions from his bed."
Russell received a blessing from the First Presidency on the eve of the operation, under the hands of President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner.
"They blessed me that the operation would be performed without error, that all would go well, and that I need not fear for my own inadequacies, for I had been raised up by the Lord to perform this operation."
The operation began the next morning, and as the first incision was made, the resident physician exclaimed,
"He doesn't bleed!"
Dr. Nelson observed,
"From that very first maneuver until the last one, everything went as planned. There was not one broken stitch, not one instrument had fallen from the table, not one technical flaw had occurred in a series of thousands of intricate manipulations. I suppose my feelings at that time may have been like those of a concert pianist rendering a concerto without ever hitting a wrong note, or a baseball player who had pitched a perfect gameó no hits, no runs, no errors, and no walks. For a long and difficult operation had been performed exactly in accordance with the blessing invoked by the power of the priesthood."
President Monson recalled that eventful day. He was seated in the temple with President Lee and the other Brethren. They had been fasting, and their hearts were filled with hopeful anxiety. When the phone rang, President Lee left the room to take the call. President Monson noted,
"President Lee was a master at masking his feelings, and he walked back into the room as somber as he could be. He said, 'That was Brother Nelson. Spencer is off the pump!' We all smiled and said a prayer of thanksgiving."
Russell recounted,
"Even more overpowering than the feeling that came as we shocked President Kimball's heart and it resumed its beating immediately with vigor, was the manifestation of the Spirit which told me that I had just operated upon the man who would become president of the Church! "I knew that President Kimball was a prophet. I knew that he was an Apostle, but now it was revealed to me that he would preside over the Church! This feeling was so strong that I could hardly contain myself as we performed the routine maneuvers to conclude the operation. Later on in the week as he convalesced, I shared these impressions with him and he and I wept. I know that he did not take this feeling as seriously as I did because he knew that President Harold B. Lee, who stood before him in the Quorum, was younger and more healthy than he."
Both physician and patient became close during President Kimball's convalescence, which went smoothly. That is not to minimize the burden of pain and anxiety that he experienced. Frequently, Dr. Nelson would visit President Kimball's home and find that he was discouraged, as are most convalescing patients.
"The thing that President Kimball feared most was disability," Russell said. "He did not fear death, but he did not want to be a drain on the Brethren, the Church, or his beloved Camilla. He was concerned that although his life might have been prolonged, he might not be able to return to full service in the Church."
In the midst of this postoperative recovery came the death of President Joseph Fielding Smith, in July 1972. Dr. Nelson went immediately to the Kimball home upon learning of the death of President Smith. He and Sister Kimball helped President Kimball get dressed so he could attend the meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve wherein the presidency of the Church would be reorganized. Russell said,
"I even sat down at President Kimball's typewriter and wrote a medical report on President Kimball that I hoped would be of some value to President Harold B. Lee as he, the new president of the Church, considered the reorganization."
From that time forward, President Kimball began to gain power and strength. As more was asked of him in the Church, and as more was expected from him, his ability to perform increased remarkably.

The evening after Christmas 1973, Brother Nelson heard the fateful news on television that President Lee had just died and that President Romney and President Kimball were at the hospital, where he had passed away. Dr. Nelson immediately left home, sensing that his place was beside President Kimball. He went into the board of directors' room at LDS Hospital and there found President Kimball and President Romney. Brother Nelson and President Kimball embraced each other and wept. Russell said, "I thought maybe you needed me." President Kimball replied, "I surely do. Thanks for coming."

Russell recalled,
"Over the next day or two I began to sense a mood of anxiety, not only among President Kimball and the other Brethren, but in the whole community, for three presidents of the Church had been buried in the three- year period from 1970 to 1973. Now the mantle was to fall upon President Spencer W. Kimball, a man known to have cancer controlled with surgery and radiation, heart disease mended with open- heart surgery, and another illness for which he had just been hospitalized in the preceding month."
Russell added,
"As I sensed these anxieties, I was impressed to write a letter to President Kimball on the Sunday he was ordained president of the Church. President Kimball read excerpts from my letter to the Brethren in the temple and again at his first press conference. It gave him a great deal of fortification, particularly with the press as they questioned him pointedly, for he was then able to refer to the letter."
The letter read in part,
"Your surgeon wants you to know that your body is strong, your heart is better than it has been for years, and that by all of our finite ability to predict, you may consider this new assignment without undue anxiety about your health."
President Kimball became the president of the Church on December 30, 1973, at age seventy- eight. Filled with renewed enthusiasm and the Spirit of the Lord, he encouraged the Saints to "lengthen your stride" and "quicken your pace." It would be a dozen years before he passed away at the age of ninety.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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