The Impact that a Single U. Medical School Graduate Can Make
Feb 12, 2016 8:00 AM
There’s no question that the typical graduate of the University of Utah’s medical school makes a high impact throughout her or his career: An obstetrician might deliver about 13,000 babies, an internist might see as many as 150,000 patients and a surgeon might perform 25,000 operations.
Many U. alumni—in fact, most —also contribute meaningfully to their communities outside of their clinical practices. They perform research and train tomorrow’s health professionals. They offer their services free of charge at pro bono clinics or in global health settings. And a number have left a lasting mark on history with innovations to advance science, medicine and learning. Their contributions range from inventing new medical devices (Megadyne founder Marsden Blanch ’74,) and helping big pharmaceutical companies develop drugs (Genentech pathologist, John Lowe ‘80), to inventing new fields of science (Bioinformatics founder, the late Homer Warner ‘49) and running universities (former Brigham Young University President, Cecil Samuelson ‘70).
Recently, we had the chance to celebrate a most remarkable alumnus of the School of Medicine, Dr. Russell Nelson ’47, who, in 1951 took part in the first open heart surgery at the University of Minnesota. A few years later, Nelson brought his know-how to Utah. Using materials taken from his wife’s kitchen, Nelson and his colleagues built a heart-pump machine that succeeded at keeping 39-year-old Vernell Worthen alive as he repaired her atrial septal defect (a congenital hole in the heart), thereby making Utah the third state to successfully perform open heart surgery.
It was a turning point for medicine, recalled Nelson at an on-campus event commemorating the procedure’s 60th anniversary, “because it went from a question of whether you can open the human heart and have the patient survive, to what will you do now that you can get in there.”
Nelson went on to answer that question by performing over the course of his career practically every type of heart surgery in existence—a feat that, as one of his former students remarked, only a handful of cardiologists can probably claim.
Researchers at the University of Utah continued his legacy, achieving many cardiology firsts, including invention of the first artificial heart, or Jarvik-7, which surgeons successfully placed in Barney Clark in 1982. Today, U. scientists are among a select group worldwide exploring ways to use heart pumps not only as a supportive bridge to transplant, but to help hearts heal and fully recover.
All of humanity benefits from these advances. Toward the end of his career, Nelson made a special trip to China where he shared his knowledge and skills with physicians at three universities. It was there that he performed his last open heart surgery in 1985. Former students say he was an exacting and demanding teacher. Among his mentees is the accomplished Dr. Devendra Saksena who brought open heart surgery to India and is now a senior cardiac surgeon in Bombay.
Dr. Nelson may have put away his scalpel, but his life is still marked by service as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the most senior leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His is a life marked by service.
Whether discovering, performing and teaching life-saving surgical techniques or attending to matters of faith, he exemplifies the possibilities and potential of devoting oneself to building up the lives of others. It’s an ethic rooted in academia, and one that I’m proud to say is still embraced by the talented students and faculty at the U. today.comments powered by Disqus