Still at the Helm

Pediatrician Tom Welch was one of the founders of Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. He remains the top pediatrician at the hospital. He talks about career, growing up in Herkimer, and why he is also known as ‘Adiron Doc’

By Aaron Gifford

For Tom Welch, climbing mountains and practicing medicine have much in common.

When your ascent is high enough to observe breathtaking views of what’s below and appreciate what one has accomplished to get to that point, it takes a great deal of focus and endurance to look up instead of down and continue climbing with no guarantee of reaching the summit.

The key to success is to enjoy yourself, to believe that what you’re doing is important, and to work well with others who are also pushing onward.

Welch, medical director and a founding father of Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse who still practices pediatric nephrology, has always managed to balance his lifelong love of the outdoors with his medical career. The two elements, he says, complement each other well.

“Both of them give you the ability to be disconnected from everything else when you are focused on a task,” said Welch, 70, who also is a licensed wilderness guide. “That’s a nice place to be sometimes.”

Welch took some time recently to discuss his upbringing in the rural Mohawk Valley, a rewarding medical and academic career that brought him back home to Central New York, the quest to bring a children’s hospital here, and how he came to be known as the “Adiron Doc.”

Welch, an only child, grew up in Herkimer, a village in the Adirondack foothills. His father worked as a county administrator and his mother was a schoolteacher. Back then Herkimer was a small but thriving community that boasted a vibrant wood furniture industry. The forest meant everything to the Welches, and young Thomas gravitated to the outdoors right away.

He excelled in Boy Scouts and took a strong interest in biology. An outstanding student, Welch chose Princeton University for his undergraduate degree.

Welch was torn between a career in wilderness biology and a career in medicine, but before completing his undergraduate degree he decided that if he worked hard as a physician, he would eventually have the flexibility to maintain his dedication to the outdoors as a lifelong hobby.

He spent two weeks of a college break roughing it in the Adirondacks without a television, radio or newspapers. When he left the woods, Welch asked the first person he saw who had won the California primary election. He was informed that candidate Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.

“Sad news, yes,” he said. “Yet there is something special about getting away to a place where you can be removed from all current events. I always enjoyed getting out and being out on my own. The best part about the outdoors is the ability to be disconnected.”

He chose to attend medical school in Montreal at McGill University. He had relatives in northern New York who did well after graduating from there; he loved the city of Montreal and wanted to experience a change of pace. Of course, Montreal was a reasonable drive to some fantastic wilderness areas in Quebec.

At McGill, Welch’s best mentors specialized in pediatric medicine. He found that specialty fascinating, determined that he could excel in it and followed in their footsteps. He continued his training at the University of Colorado, conveniently located near the Rockies, and established his sub-specialty in pediatric nephrology.

“I spent most of my free time climbing the Rockies out there,” he said. “I was lucky to pursue both endeavors.”

Leader in pediatric nephrology

With medical degree and credentials in hand, Welch returned home to serve his community, becoming the first pediatrician to set up shop in Herkimer. One day a week, he continued his work in pediatric nephology in Syracuse, completing the required training in the area of childhood kidney disease to become board-certified. Welch loved practicing in his hometown, but he also desired career growth at an academic center, so he took a job at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to establish himself as a leader in the field.

“I wanted to come home,” he said, but at that time Syracuse did not have its own children’s hospital. Welch then decided to take on what could be the toughest climb in his career.

By nature, pediatric nephrologists must be strong collaborators and excellent communicators. Kidney disease can affect other organs, so specialists in that field often have no choice but to work with other specialists and primary care physicians.

Welch was a successful practitioner during his time at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in an era that saw major breakthroughs in nephrology — from a new standard of success in kidney transplants to the onset of home-based dialysis care.

In his quest to come home, Welch took a look at the numbers. In a vast region of about 2 million people that spans from the Canadian border to the Southern Tier, existing hospitals could not accommodate the demand for surgery on the youngest of patients, whether minor or major, and smaller hospitals outside of the Syracuse metro region had only modest pediatric departments that could not provide advanced levels of care.

On top of that, Welch discovered 60 to 70 new cases of childhood cancers were being diagnosed in the region annually.
“There was no way it could be divided through the hospitals in our area,” he said.

Herculean effort

In 2001, Welch returned home to practice pediatric nephrology at Upstate University Hospital and spearhead effort to build a children’s hospital. His dream was realized in September 2009. The hospital was named after its major benefactor, Rochester billionaire Thomas Golisano. Welch and Eileen Pezzi worked to raise $22 million from 8,000 donors, and their work continued well after the facility opened.

“He gave over 150 tours for donors,” said Pezzi, Upstate University Hospital vice president for development. “He put his heart and soul into it. His advocacy for kids is unparalleled. It’s easy to be part of a team with someone that has so much passion for the care of sick and injured children.”

More than 4,000 children receive care at that hospital annually. It has more than 70 beds, a pediatric trauma center and employs 90 specialists, including two other pediatric nephrologists. Welch treats young patients there as well, in addition to overseeing the hospital’s quality assurance, safety, fund raising and recruitment efforts.

Welch lives in Jamesville with his wife, Carolyn. They have two grown children. Son Tim is a pediatric anesthesiologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Daughter Beth is a graduate student at Harvard.

Despite tremendous time commitments for work, Welch maintains a healthy lifestyle. He has competed in 21 marathons and still runs shorter distances. He has been a vegetarian since the mid-1980s. He gave up meat and fish for health and ethical reasons.

“At first I missed veal and fish the most,” he said. “But it has been so long that I don’t even miss those things.”

A blender is a vegetarian’s best friend, Welch says, and homemade soups are the best-kept secret.

“Carrots, parsnips, turnips, root vegetables and lots of spices,” Welch said. “The canned soups have so much sodium. But if you make it yourself, soup is healthy and unique. There’s so much you can create.”

Welch usually brings a variety of beans and spices to make his own soup during wilderness trips. He is a licensed guide in New York, Alaska and Montana and teaches survival training, but he does not fish or hunt.

Wilderness via the web

In the late 1990s, Welch created his “AdironDoc” website to share his love and knowledge of the outdoors with the rest of the world. On the blog section of the site, Welch provides helpful information on a variety of topics, from the use of sport drinks, to “the silly science of drinking urine,” to the basics of dealing with brown bears.

“Regardless of species,” Welch wrote, “the most common result of an encounter with a bear, in the Adirondacks or in Alaska, is the ultimate death of the bear. When bear have an encounter with a human that results in a food reward, they are on the pathway to becoming  a problem bear.

“This most often results in their death, either at the hand of regulatory authorities or hunters.”

Despite his experience on higher mountains and denser wilderness in Alaska and Montana, Welch still considers the Adirondacks his special place. He has property there, and still finds plenty of spots where he can go into the woods for days on ends with no access to cell phone service or current events. At the Five Ponds Wilderness Area near Cranberry Lake, for example, “I have been there for days without seeing anyone.”

He applauds the state of New York for continually expanding the Adirondack Park. As the park gets bigger and more people are discovering it, Welch continues teaching survival skills.

He advocates the use of maps and compasses, and discourages would-be wilderness campers from relying on a GPS device. He also implores students to forget anything they think they learned on outdoor reality television shows like “Survivor.”

“Those shows,” he said, “drive me absolutely crazy.”

That’s not to say outdoor adventures cannot be trying and dramatic. During a winter break from college, Welch and a group of his hiking buddies ran into whiteout conditions at the top of Mount Colden in the Adirondacks. They took an unfamiliar path back to their campsite in the dark. They made it back safe, thanks to their skills and preparation. Welch draws on his own experiences to provide his students the appropriate tools for success.

One of those students is Mike Parker, an ear, nose and throat specialist who practices in the Syracuse area. He met Welch at the age of 11 when he was in Boy Scouts. Welch was 22 years old at the time and a conservation area director who worked with scout troops.

“He was one of the guys that all of the younger kids looked up to,” Parker recalled. “He was cool without knowing that he’s cool. He was the role model for outdoors appreciation.”

Parker and his three children were all Eagle Scouts. He still frequents the Adirondacks and climbed a frozen Algonquin mountain this past January. One of his most memorable times in the national park was climbing Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York state, on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent up that mountain. He also fondly recalls that time he consulted Welch when he was unsure of pursuing a career in medicine versus a career in wilderness biology or environmental science.

“I was worried about sacrificing so much time in medical school that I couldn’t be outdoors,” Parker said. “He offered me some clarity on that topic. With his guidance, I was able to decide on the importance of providing a service to others. He provided enough wisdom, but from a friend’s perspective.”

Joe Stern, a licensed wilderness guide in Utah, was in scouts with Welch’s son, Tim. When Welch became their troop leader, Stern was totally impressed with “how a guy in his 50s could be so super fit, so active and know so much about the outdoors while also working as a doctor.”

“He went well beyond just hot dogs around the fire,” Stern said. “That level of expertise of the outdoors, even in scouts, is rare. He was at the next level. That’s who inspired me for this career. I’m still learning from him, and I’m a pro!”

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