Jeff Welch, M.S.W., L.M.S.W, living donor transplant social worker and one of the pioneers of the Hispanic Transplant Program at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, has always been known to care for people, animals and even insects.
“If I see a bug, I’ll scream,” his wife says. “Jeff, on the other hand, will catch it and take it outside rather than killing it. If it’s a bug that’s scary looking, Jeff will even go to the effort to drive it away from the house.”
“Of course, there are always exceptions,” Jeff jokes.
Jeff’s caring nature, along with a tapestry of other life, career and educational experiences, have interwoven to make his position ideally-suited for him.
He explains, however, that “it wasn’t a direct path” to his social work career at Mayo Clinic.
A Southwest native, Jeff completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at Northern Arizona University. During his studies, Jeff also participated in two student exchange programs, studying in New Zealand and Mexico.
Jeff spent time in the workforce after graduation, and then pursued a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at University of New Mexico. Following his master’s program, Jeff worked for a behavioral health non-profit trying to keep kids off drugs and alcohol in the Maryvale area of central Phoenix. Among other strategies, he and colleagues worked with the local community to put together cultural programs such as an alcohol-free quinceañera, or Latin American 15th birthday celebration for girls. In this setting, Jeff received guidance from a professional social worker, his supervisor, and was inspired.
“After four years of working at the non-profit, I really felt like social work was the direction I wanted to go,” he says. “The alcohol-free quinceañera was one of my first projects where I really was involved in the Hispanic community.”
That supervisor, who held a doctorate in social work, served as a model and ultimately a catalyst for Jeff to go back to school again and complete dual master’s degrees in social work and public administration at Arizona State University. After finishing these degrees, he spent the next four years serving as a medical social worker in Arizona hospitals.
Though Jeff grew up an English-speaker, he gradually built the Spanish language abilities he now uses regularly in his social work position at Mayo Clinic.
“I knew maybe 20 words when I went to Mexico as an exchange student, and after nine months I came back at a conversational level in Spanish,” he said. “The most valuable part of my undergraduate education was learning Spanish.”
While in Mexico, Jeff went to language school for three months and then spent additional months immersing himself with the Mexican community and making friends. During his master’s studies, Jeff took Spanish classes, and then he met and married his wife, who is from Peru, which further boosted his language learning.
Jeff started in social work at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus in May 2016, working exclusively in outpatient transplant care. He serves in the living donor program for kidney and liver transplantation. Since its January 2017 launch, Jeff also has been doing outreach with the Mayo Clinic Hispanic Transplant Program, a role anticipated since his hire.
When Jeff is on the Mayo Clinic campus in Phoenix, his days involve conducting initial psychosocial evaluations for liver or kidney living donors, and then following them before and after their surgeries. He tends to practical and emotional needs for these patients before and after surgery, such as coordinating travel, lodging, meals or financial help from outside organizations or arranging for counseling for anxiety and depression. He visits living donors in the hospital on their first postoperative days, congratulating them, making sure they are ready for recovery and offering help with any needs or concerns.
On two days per week from 8 a.m. to noon, Jeff drives to other Arizona locales to hold “Lobby Days” at dialysis clinics identified for high Hispanic patient population and interest in coordinating with the Mayo Clinic program. On these days, he sets up a table in a lobby or other visible area in the clinic where he can talk to patients in English or Spanish about kidney transplant. He’s visited clinics in Gila River, Casa Grande and other communities in Arizona. In the future, Jeff hopes to spend more time at these clinics as well as extend the outreach to New Mexico.
“I try and meet them where they are at in the community, reducing barriers they may have to transplantation and trying to increase the number of Hispanic living donors from their family, friends or social networks,” Jeff says. “I ask them if they have thought about transplant and talk to them about being evaluated, surgery and the recovery period. We also talk about living donation.”
Jeff also helps Hispanic patients and families he meets at the clinics dispel any misunderstandings about transplant that may have arisen due to language barriers or insufficient information, such as what it means to be on a wait list for an organ, where they can go for a transplant and any misconceptions about age or future fertility for living donors. For those interested, he helps to initiate a referral for an evaluation at Mayo Clinic, working with the patient’s nephrologist.
Twice monthly, Jeff and colleagues provide the Hispanic Transplant Program at Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus for Hispanic patients and families interested in kidney transplantation and living donation. At these sessions, Spanish-speaking transplant providers provide education and information, as well as emphasize cultural concerns that Hispanic patients may have in pursuit of kidney transplant, myths about transplantation, and expectations about life as a kidney transplant recipient or living donor. The program also includes a one-hour caregiver education program in Spanish to let patients’ caregivers know what is expected of them and provide critical information for this role.
Some of the patients who participate in the Mayo Clinic Hispanic Transplant Program come in through Jeff’s outreach, he notes, and others hear about the program through their doctors or their dialysis social workers.
One aspect of his job Jeff really enjoys is getting to know the patients, assessing where they are emotionally and what practical needs they may have, in addition to presenting possibilities for living donation.
“There is a lot of job satisfaction in meeting someone and having the resources and ability to help them get to a better point in their life or help them achieve what they are trying to achieve, whether it be donating an organ or receiving an organ,” he says. “I know I’m just one member on the team, but it’s an important role we have in social work to make sure that each patient is in the right place to be a donor, or if they are trying to receive an organ, that they have everything they need for a successful surgery and recovery.”
Jeff also is thrilled to be able to use the language skills he’s worked so hard to learn and work with patients who are part of the Hispanic culture, to which he’s been drawn for many years.
“The fact that I’m able to continue using my Spanish in this workplace setting, is wonderful — I love it,” he says. “It just encompasses the complete job role for who I am. It’s exciting to me to offer the services we have here at Mayo Clinic to the Hispanic population, speaking to them in Spanish — their own language.”
Jeff also really enjoys working with family members of patients, noting that for those participating in the Hispanic Transplant Program meetings, knowing the language is critical to building relationships and trust.
“When patients come in and receive their initial education in Spanish, it really is powerful for that patient and their family and it helps them buy in to the transplant evaluation process and builds their own enthusiasm for the potential of receiving that organ,” he says. “It also gives the family members education on whether they can be a living donor.”
When Jeff is not at work, he and his wife enjoy spending time with their children, ages 9 and 3, going to the pool or taking weekend trips to places like Rocky Point, a beach town over the Mexican border on the Sea of Cortez, or to the southern California coast. He enjoys spending time outdoors, such as hiking, camping and time near the water, noting that he and his wife hope to involve their kids in more outdoor activities as they grow older.
Whether with family or with patients, caring and concern for others are high priorities for Jeff. It seems his wife’s description of his insect nurturing is indeed quintessential Jeff.
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