Dr. Nancy Welch—

Chesapeake’s First Citizen of 2023

When Dr. Nancy Welch, Director of the Chesapeake Health Department, was told that she had been chosen as Chesapeake’s First Citizen of 2023, her reaction was no surprise to those who know her.

“I was honored to have been chosen, there’s no doubt about that,” she says, “but I almost feel guilty because the truth is that all I do is contingent on the wonderful team I have in the community and the health department. Those relationships and commitments make anything I do possible, so this honor needs to be shared with all of them.”

Nancy’s eagerness to share the credit for her accomplishments is no polite display of manners but is a sincere reflection of her guiding principle, best summed up in the old proverb, “It takes a village.” It was a principle first instilled in her by her mother.

“I was born in Florida Land, back in the B.D. years—meaning Before Disney,” she recalls with a laugh. “My mom was a hairdresser—a therapist in reality. People were drawn to her because she was so compassionate. If someone was in need, Mom opened our home to them.

“I also had the good fortune of growing up in a neighborhood that was like a big village,” she continues. “Right after my youngest sister was born, Hurricane Donna hit Florida. There was flooding, and the electricity went out for a week or more, so we had no way to prepare the baby’s formula. But one neighbor with a gas stove went around taking hot coffee to adult neighbors and helping others. He let us prepare the baby’s formula on his stove. Other neighbors took turns going to the ice house and bringing us ice so that we could keep the prepared formula cold. When it was time to feed my baby sister, we’d heat the bottle of formula over a candle. We made it through times like that because of our neighborhood village. At a young age, I learned to appreciate the village concept. It’s not just a nice idea to me; it’s a reality.”

Nancy’s sense of responsibility for others inspired her to become a doctor.

“I was the oldest girl in a family of five kids,” she explains. “With both of my parents working, I assumed a lot of responsibility in our home, helping care for my younger siblings. If they were sick, it wasn’t unusual for me to call the pediatrician or to take them to the doctor. At age 10, I said I wanted to be a pediatrician. To her credit, my mom didn’t say, ‘We can’t afford it.’ Instead, she said, ‘I think you’ll make a great pediatrician!’ She always believed in us. Because of her, we knew we could accomplish whatever we wanted. All of my siblings graduated from college.”

Nancy earned a bachelor’s degree from Lynchburg College, a doctor of medicine from Duke University, a master’s degree in business administration from Old Dominion University, and a master’s degree in health administration from the University of Colorado. In 1976, her career path went from pediatrics to serving as a Public Health Director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. “There’s no doubt I switched from pediatrics to public health because I grew up knowing the value of the village concept and had a mother who gave to everyone, regardless of who they were,” Nancy points out.

During her first 11 years in Public Health, Nancy served as the Director for the Alleghany Health District. “I was drawn to that area because I went to Lynchburg College for my undergraduate work,” she notes. In 1987, Nancy moved to Hampton Roads to serve as Chesapeake’s Director of Public Health in 1987.
“I didn’t know much about Chesapeake when I came here,” Nancy admits, “but the receptivity of the city’s leaders and community was wonderful. I think it’s to Chesapeake’s credit that so many of its citizens are so engaged. There is so much comradery between the city leaders and all the various entities that are directly involved with our citizens, such as the police and fire departments. As community caregivers, that kind of comradery and cooperation is the only way to do public health—it makes all the difference. Chesapeake turns out to be the ideal for that approach. In a sense, we are Chesapeake’s largest medical practice because all 250,000 citizens are our clients. “

Very soon after her arrival, Nancy developed deep connection to Chesapeake, seeing it as her village. In the years that followed that village played a profound role in Nancy’s personal life—one for which she expresses heartfelt gratitude to this day.

“In 1999, as a single parent, I adopted two six-year-old children from Ukraine,” Nancy explains. “I traveled to Ukraine and stayed there for a while to learn more about my children and the environment from which they were coming. Both of my children had been victims of trauma and were suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), so after bringing them here, we faced many challenges. But I was blessed to have a huge village of support here. Our family wouldn’t be here today if not for that village. That’s a tribute to Chesapeake, the local church, and the school system.”

Wanting to offer hope to other families dealing with such issues, Nancy wrote a frank, honest account of her experiences in her 2013 book “Healing Emotional: A Story of Overcoming the Long Hard Road to Recovery from Abuse and Abandonment.”

Aside from her career in Public Health, Nancy has honorably served her country as a colonel in the United States Army. She also spearheaded the creation of Health Chesapeake—a local consortium of organizations dedicated to serving the community’s most vulnerable citizens. A long-time member of the Emergency Operations Center in Chesapeake, she has played a pivotal role in the city’s response to many natural and manmade disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

To those who know or have worked with Nancy, it is no surprise that the Chesapeake Rotary has honored her as Chesapeake’s First Citizen of 2023. Her life exemplifies the Rotary motto of “Service Above Self” and is a testimony of her commitment to Chesapeake and the well-being of all its citizens.

“Public Health is a merger of mind and heart because you can’t make decisions on medical data alone,” Nancy says. “So many other deciding factors have to be considered. You have to be a part of the community, interact with people on the frontline, and listen to them. You have to speak their language—not expect them to speak yours—and, most importantly, you have to work toward solutions. Public Health is not a ‘win-win game’ but a ‘make things better game.’”

/Rob Lauer

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