SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah School of Medicine announced a new endowed chair on Friday night that will be a lasting tribute to LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and his late first wife for their pioneering contributions to heart surgery and research.
University President Ruth V. Watkins called the Russell M. Nelson and Dantzel W. Nelson Presidential Endowed Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery a "spectacular opportunity to recognize excellence," according to a news release.
The late Sister Nelson directly contributed to the development of the first practical-use heart-lung machine that allowed her husband and others to pioneer open-heart surgery in the 1950s. She also provided critical encouragement to President Nelson in those early days when losses left him grief-stricken.
He went on to perform nearly 7,000 surgical operations before leaving practice in 1984 to accept a call as an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In January, he became the faith's 17th president.
"President Nelson, you have touched the hearts and the souls — literally touched the hearts — and the souls and minds of millions of people," Watkins said. "We're so delighted to be able to establish this tribute to you and Dantzel."
Sister Nelson died in 2005 after 59 years of marriage. President Nelson married Sister Wendy Watson in 2006.
The first recipient of the endowed chair is Craig H. Selzman, a heart surgery professor in the U.’s School of Medicine since 2008.
"There is no way I am worthy of this honor," Selzman said to President Nelson in his remarks. "That said, I do believe our division as a whole, is worthy of this. On behalf of the division and department, please note that we will strive every single day to live up to the path you have laid before us. We hope to make you, your family and all of you who have been so generous to contribute to this chair proud for generations to come."
President Nelson earned bachelor and medical degrees at the University of Utah and a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He returned to the U. as a faculty member in 1955 and he directed the U. Affiliated Hospitals' thoracic surgery training program for 17 years.
"I am confident that the continuing work and research at the University of Utah will bring credit to this great institution," he said.
President Nelson performed the first open-heart operation west of the Mississippi in Utah in 1955.
Last week, President Nelson recalled how Sister Dantzel Nelson played an important role in developing the heart-lung machine, using her sewing needle to make small holes in a rubber diaphragm that allowed the machine to gently introduce oxygen bubbles to the blood.
He also has told the story of another contribution by Dantzel after he lost two patients, a pair of sisters, in the late 1950s. Their brother had died previously of congenital heart disease. He recounted in a 2015 LDS general conference how he needed what he called her vision, love, grit and prodding after he cried all night upon the death of the third child, declaring he would never perform another heart operation.3 comments on this story
In the morning, Sister Nelson said to him, "Are you finished crying? Then get dressed. Go back to the lab. Go to work. You need to learn more. If you quit now, others will have to painfully learn what you already know."
Friday's dinner was held in the Empire Room at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building adjacent to Temple Square. Many donors attended the event.
President Nelson said he was grateful for the endowment and that the chair would help "continue to add luster to the great record of the University of Utah, its medical school and the department of surgery in particular."