Firefighter-dad a warrior for cancer and kids - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Firefighter-dad a warrior for cancer and kids

June 16th, 2018 development
Firefighter-dad a warrior for cancer and kids

By Colleen Sparks, Managing Editor


Firefighters are used to rescuing people facing perilous flames and life-threatening medical issues, but Keith Welch takes his role as protector far beyond the call of duty.

Welch, a Chandler Fire Department battalion chief, helped his son Jack battle and beat leukemia when he was diagnosed with the disease several years ago.

He also donated bone marrow to a young boy he had never met in Germany who was fighting cancer.

The father of two helps children and families as they contend with potentially fatal diseases by volunteering for the Children’s Cancer Network and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Welch, 46, takes his heroic actions in stride, but his friends and family members are quick to praise the warrior dad.

“Start with Keith being a firefighter, then add in that he and his wife have been unbelievable parents in the midst of Jack’s battle with leukemia AND they’ve used their situation as an inspiration to raise thousands of dollars to help other families facing the same battle,” said Jim Brewer, executive director of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society/Arizona Chapter.

“Then Keith becomes a bone marrow donor to save the life of a stranger and, through all of this, you’ll also never meet a genuinely nicer guy,” Brewer added. “The word ‘hero’ gets tossed around a lot these days but, in the case of Keith, if the cape fits.”

Keith’s wife Beth Welch, a preschool teacher, said her husband is “super hands-on” with their son, Jack, now 11, who just finished fifth grade at Ryan Elementary School and daughter Natalie, 14, who just completed eighth grade at Payne Junior High School.

He has coached Jack in flag football and baseball and loves to take his children wakeboarding, tubing and fishing at Saguaro Lake. Keith also helps Natalie as she competes on horseback in barrel racing and roping competitions.

A firefighter for 21 years, Keith had signed up to be a bone marrow donor before he and Beth learned Jack had leukemia. The couple had a friend who had lymphoma so Beth said they did it “to be supportive.”

Jack was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4 but did not need a bone marrow transplant. More than a year after Jack’s diagnosis, Keith was contacted and discovered he was “over a 90-percent match for a little boy in Germany,” Beth said.

“I think he would have done it for anyone but the fact that we were watching Jack go through this made it all the more poignant and special,” she said.

“It was awesome and he didn’t even bat an eye. He’s pretty reserved. He doesn’t like a lot of attention, but he will give that up to help others. He’s totally a giver. He will always help.”

A friend of the German boy’s mother contacted the Welch family on Facebook and has shared that he is doing well.

Keith’s passion for firefighting was sparked in the early 1990s after his neighbor at the time, who wound up being the fire chief for Chandler, recommended he take a ride-along with firefighters.

He took the ride and said he “just fell in love with it.” Keith had thought about going into law enforcement and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Arizona State University but decided instead on a career as a firefighter.

While going through the testing process to become a firefighter, Keith worked at Chase Bank and for a friend’s company dispersing vending machines.

He was happy to get accepted and start work in Chandler, his hometown. Keith was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but moved to Chandler in 1982 and graduated from Chandler High School in 1990.

He moved through the ranks. As battalion chief, he manages crews covering half the city and goes out on what he called “larger or more critical incidents” including heart attacks, fires and big car accidents.

“I manage the crews,” Keith said. “The crews are the ones that are putting the hands on the patients. I’ll give them direction on what to do but they manage the actual tactics.”

He said every call is different but 80 percent of the calls the fire department receives are for medical issues while the rest are about car accidents and fires.

Firefighters like battling fires but being able to revive someone who has had a heart attack or came close to drowning is “just as special,” Keith said.

He views his fellow firefighters as extended family since he sees them often. Keith works 48 hours straight, living at a fire station, then has the next four days off.

He said the most difficult part of his job is being away from his family for two consecutive days but he enjoys being able to take his children to school and do other activities with them during his off-time.

Natalie loves horseback riding and Jack enjoys football, baseball and track. The 11-year-old boy is “doing really well” and is in remission after three and a half years of treatment for leukemia, Keith said.

The boy endured several rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, as he fought the disease.

Keith recalled how Jack at age 4 did not seem like himself. He said his son had bruises on his leg and was “irritable,” which is not typical of him.

After a blood test, Jack’s doctor told Keith and Beth to bring Jack back to the office and to pack a bag as they would be going to Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

“It was obviously pretty shocking,” Keith said. “There’s so many things that go through your mind. Our doctor gave us the news. We were obviously just devastated.”

He said they did receive a “good prognosis” that gave them hope Jack would be okay but the next eight or nine months were grueling.

They experienced many sleepless nights.

Support from family members, colleagues and friends kept thee family going. Beth said fire department employees made dinners for the family for six months.

“They just rallied around us and made it so much easier,” she said.

Chandler Fire Department paramedic/Captain Ronnie Wetch, a friend of Keith’s since they were roommates in the firefighting academy, praised Keith for his strength.

“He’s pretty even keel,” Wetch of Gilbert said. “Out of this potential tragedy with his own child, he becomes a bone marrow donor. He ends up making a difference.”

He said Keith is “just a great dad, a great friend and really a great firefighter.”

Wetch hosted a party where Keith and Beth met. The couple have been married for 18 years.

“He’s created happy, healthy kids,” Wetch said. “Both him and his wife work really hard. The kids are remarkable. They’re great kids and they’re great because really their parents are great. Jack embraces that he is a survivor.”

Jack demonstrated his strength as a survivor when he served as a race starter for the Children’s Cancer Network’s Run to Fight Children’s Cancer shortly after his diagnosis.

The boy also was picked to be the Honored Hero in 2012 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society/Arizona Chapter after that.

Keith served on the executive committee for the Greater Phoenix Light the Night. The society’s Light The Night events, which raise money for life-saving research, are held in approximately 160 cities around the country and Canada.

As an Honored Hero, Jack and his family went to events to share their story and they organized a large team called Jack Strikes Back with a “Star Wars” theme.

“The Light the Night Team that Keith and Beth have had in honor of Jack – Jack Strikes Back – has raised thousands of dollars to advance the mission of LLS (Leukemia & Lymphoma Society),” Brewer said. “Keith has also been a frequent speaker at events on our behalf, sharing Jack’s story of survival to inspire others.”

Keith has enjoyed the experience of meeting other families affected by cancer.

“It’s just something you get involved in because there’s a passion for it,” he said. “You want to do as much as you can to try to give back to the organization and the things they do for people and the disease. You meet so many people. It’s therapeutic.”

Keith and his family still attend and volunteer at Children’s Cancer Network events. Jack and Natalie have participated in a fundraising fashion show the Children’s Cancer Network holds.

Keith and his fellow firefighters put up shelves and helped the Children’s Cancer Network organize its storage area. The Children’s Cancer Network, based in Chandler, is a nonprofit organization that offers financial help to families affected by cancer.

While Keith keeps a busy schedule working for the fire department and attending his children’s competitions and games, he said he also makes time to recharge on his own. He advised other fathers to “take time for yourself.”

“Kids can take a lot and they will and they need a lot but you have to work on your happiness, too, find things you’re interested in,” Keith said. “It’s obviously great to give; you can get drained. It’s about balance. It’s about doing some things for yourself, having your own time. It’s difficult. Right now I mountain bike or trail run. I’m an outdoor guy.”

Keith will be working on Father’s Day but he said he suspected his wife and children, as well as other firefighters’ families, would visit them at the station.