A graduate of the College of Nursing, who helped fight Ebola in West Africa and treated patients in Haiti, has been awarded for his early career achievements by The Ohio State University Alumni Association.
John Welch was presented with the 2016 William Oxley Thompson Award, given to young alumni who have demonstrated distinctive achievement in a career, civic involvement or both.
“We are so very proud to call him one of our own,” said Colleen Pelasky, BA, assistant director for alumni engagement for the College of Nursing. “He has unwaveringly and selflessly served local and international communities and made important contributions to the world of healthcare along the way. John embodies our college’s vision to achieve what others consider impossible.”
Following his bachelor of science degree in nursing from Ohio State in 2003, Welch earned a master’s degree from Boston College. He later worked as a pediatric and cardiac critical-care nurse in Columbus, Ohio; California; Washington D.C.; and Australia. In 2012, he joined Boston Children’s Hospital as an associate nurse anesthetist before being promoted to senior nurse anesthetist in March 2014, specializing in pediatric cardiac anesthesia.
While working at Boston Children’s Hospital, Welch joined the Boston-based healthcare and social justice nongovernmental organization Partners in Health (PIH) in 2013. PIH works to address the root causes of illness for many suffering from poverty or marginalization caused by injustice. Welch’s introduction to global health came when PIH opened a 300-bed teaching hospital, University Hospital Mirabalais (UHM) in Haiti’s impoverished rural Central Plateau district.
Welch’s role in Haiti was a combination of anesthesia practice, teaching, mentorship, advocacy, program development, operations management and even student. Through a massive amount of time, effort and perseverance, Welch helped UHM improve in a major way. By September 2014, UHM was performing nearly 300 surgeries per month, more than any hospital in Haiti. The anesthesia-related mortality rate declined, surgical schedule efficiency increased and the UHM nurse anesthesia program he helped guide welcomed its first class of students.
Welch’s lengthy list of career accomplishments might earn him the label of overachiever for a 35-year-old. Yet his drive is not rooted in a desire to gain kudos, rather in a longtime discomfort with inequality. As a high-school student, Welch accompanied his church group from Woodville, Ohio, for a week-long trip to Columbus to help set up summer Bible school for youth at a Christian church on the city’s south side.
“A lot of kids would turn up without shoes or would be clearly there for the snack time and it just really struck me that we can sing songs and we can glue macaroni on paper but what these kids need is for us to stay and to provide something other than just singing songs about God,’’ he said. “At the end of that week, I was just unsettled by the fact that that was enough for any of us.”
Welch’s ambition to care for the health needs of vulnerable populations led him to West Africa in 2014 to help fight Ebola. After special training in Liberia to work in an Ebola treatment unit, Welch helped PIH roll out treatment units in multiple districts in Liberia.
When transmission of Ebola raged in Sierra Leone, Welch turned his attention there. In the short run, Welch helped the treatment units there improve the quality of care and increase the pipeline of medical supplies; in the long run, he leveraged the work of his PIH teams to improve the Ebola response nationwide. By January 2015, PIH had opened 21 Ebola facilities across six districts. In Welch’s seven months in West Africa, PIH cared for nearly 2,000 suspected Ebola patients.
Being back in the United States for the past year, Welch had a chance to return to a regular sleep schedule, yet that left him yearning for the rigors of his schedule in West Africa and Haiti.
“I long for the 20-hour days and the seven-day work weeks. When you’re in the field doing the work, you think a lot about being at home. When you’re at home, the only thing you can think about is being out in the field and doing the work.”
Days after receiving his Alumni Association Award, Welch was on a flight to Haiti to work with victims of the most recent hurricane.