"I Feel Like the Lord Engineered It."

After serving as an Air Force surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Eliason ’92 and a former colleague developed a life-saving catheter used on soldiers and trauma victims. As he continues his work and research as a vascular surgeon, he says he’s seen the Lord’s hand in his journey dating back to his time at Bethel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

November 25, 2019 | 11:30 a.m.

Jonathan Eliason ’92

Jonathan Eliason ’92 says the lessons he learned at Bethel still guide him today in his career as a vascular surgeon at the University of Michigan.

Often while scrubbing his hands before a difficult surgery, Dr. Jonathan Eliason ’92 prays: “Lord, take control of this outcome, take control of my efforts, and I place my trust in you, not in myself.”

Eliason, a professor and vascular surgeon at the University of Michigan, says he’s experienced the Lord guiding his journey time and time again. When alarms warned of possible mortar attacks while he served as a military surgeon in Iraq, Eliason says, “The Lord just gave me total peace.” He felt the Lord’s hand again when he collaborated with a former military colleague to create a life-saving catheter used on soldiers and in trauma centers. “It’s just a real blessing from the Lord to go from a doodle on a napkin when we were at the VA hospital talking, to a device that actually helps people,” Eliason says. “It’s been a pretty amazing journey.”

And Eliason traces the roots of his career to Bethel, where his faith flourished and where his professors inspired him to pursue his medical school dreams.

Bethel Roots

Despite deep family ties to Bethel, it almost wasn’t a part of Eliason’s journey. His father, Leland Eliason ’62, S’66, served Bethel Seminary for more than 25 years as a faculty member, assistant to the dean, and as executive director and provost. However, Eliason’s aspirations to play football at the highest collegiate level led him to a California college for his freshman year. But he endured a lonely year with few church and faith connections.

He remembers driving his scooter up a dune near Pismo Beach, California, where he contemplated his future. “I was by myself, I was lonely, the stars were out, and I just felt like the Lord was saying, ‘Jon, this isn’t the place for you, and you’ve hidden from me long enough,’” he says. He returned to his apartment and called his father and said he wanted to transfer to Bethel. “I think that was an important moment where I felt the Lord’s direction, and I also felt him pursuing me,” he says.

Eliason rekindled his faith at Bethel, where he felt empowered to make his faith his own for the first time. “I definitely saw the foundation for my personal faith really begin at Bethel,” he says. Eliason, a defensive end and linebacker, joined Bethel’s football team during Head Coach Steve Johnson’s first year at Bethel. He embraced the coaches’ and players’ goals of living out their faith first, loving one another through that faith, and then winning football games.

Eliason also benefitted from the mentorship of Department of Biological Sciences professors like C. Weldon Jones, who pushed Eliason toward his goal to attend medical school. “He really challenged me to use the potential that God had given me,” he says. “He recognized in me some lazy attitudes and Laissez-faire ways of handling school and just challenged me to do more.” Jones and other professors helped spark Eliason’s academic energy. “Bethel’s always had a great set of science programs,” he says. “And they had a great track record for placing students in medical school.”

Serving His Country

After his first year of medical school, Eliason joined the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), a military scholarship program that offers year-for-year scholarships. He received tuition assistance for three years of medical school in return for three years of military service as a surgeon. During his general surgery residency at Vanderbilt University, Eliason gravitated toward vascular surgery. He calls it a specialty area focused on blood vessels outside of the heart. “It’s kind of a plumber type job,” Eliason jokes.

After starting his military service at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, Eliason spent more than four months in 2006 and 2007 deployed in Balad, Iraq, at the former Iraqi National Air Force Base with the U.S. Air Force during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Along with performing more extensive, open surgeries, Eliason was part of a team exploring how to bring minimally-invasive surgeries to a combat zone.

I feel like the Lord engineered it, because I can’t really imagine how it would have all come together without His hand involved in it.

— Dr. Jonathan Eliason ’92
The team used stents, filters, and other tools to treat injuries in Iraq before more extensive surgery could be completed back in the U.S. They used a minimally-invasive snare to extract a bullet from the vena cava; they placed filters in the vena cava to trap blood clots so soldiers wouldn’t die from a pulmonary embolism; and they performed several catheter-directed procedures in vessels. “This really was a time of exploring boundaries of what we could do in a forward surgical area,” he says. The collaborative team passed their work on to the next lines of military surgeons.

After his time overseas, Eliason returned home to the University of Michigan, but the work started in the military didn’t stop. When Col. Todd Rasmussen, Eliason’s former Air Force boss, visited the University of Michigan, the two brainstormed new ways to use minimally-invasive methods of stopping bleeding in the abdomen and chest in combat victims. They developed a catheter device with a balloon on it that inflates inside a patient’s aorta to halt bleeding while supporting blood pressure in the heart and brain. The goal was to bridge any critically injured patients from the point of injury to an operating room.

As the idea developed, the Air Force and the University of Michigan formed a Cooperate Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to receive funding to create and test a prototype. Startup company Prytime Medical Devices Inc. joined the CRADA, licensing the idea as the ER-REBOA Catheter before using its team to improve the device. They received Food and Drug Administration approval for use in trauma and hemorrhage situations. Eliason is grateful for the accomplishment, but he’s even more surprised and thankful that the device made it this far and is functioning well for patients “I feel like the Lord engineered it, because I can’t really imagine how it would have all come together without His hand involved in it,” Eliason says.

Today, Eliason is focused on his practice and lab research involving electronic cigarettes and their effects on the vascular system, though he is always thinking of device innovations. His clinical work focuses on abdominal aortic aneurysms, which are a bulge in the aorta within the abdomen that more commonly affects men than women. Many patients have a prior history of cigarette usage or exposure to secondhand smoke. While doctors can link such ailments to conventional cigarettes, research is still determining if e-cigarettes affect the arteries in similar ways. Eliason and his University of Michigan team are comparing the outcomes of popular e-cigarette brands to conventional cigarettes. The team is looking at modifications in vascular proteins altered by vapor exposure to determine if they’re harmful or just a byproduct of exposure. They recently submitted a grant to test the hypothesis that e-cigarette vapor increases the risk of aneurysm formation.

Back at Bethel

Eliason’s ties to Bethel have only deepened. He has spoken at biology department events, and he attended Homecoming celebrations in October when his father was recognized as 2019 Alumnus of the Year. But he has another reason to visit campus: Ella Eliason ’22, his oldest child, has an undeclared major and is minoring in English. “It’s been amazing to come back and see the growth in Bethel, to hear her relay how impactful Bethel has been for her so far,” he says. Eliason and his wife, Heidi (Smith) ’93, also have two sons, William and Andrew, who are in high school.

Eliason is proud to see continued growth and success in Bethel’s football team and science departments. “I can’t really believe how much Bethel has moved forward since I was here, and I thought it was great when I was here,” he says. And he continues to see lessons from Bethel impacting his life. The football team’s focus on others, its team focus, and its goal-oriented approach often mirror his work with his medical colleagues. And recently, he told Heidi that he continues applying the lessons Jones and other professors instilled in him to his work and research. “They really set me on a trajectory that I wouldn’t be on otherwise,” he says.

“The investment that I had into my life, the personal investment, the open-door policy, the obvious love and care that were poured into me, I can’t put a price tag on that,” he says. “It was so valuable, and I know that Bethel has remained that way.”
Maria Pecoraro ’19

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