For the past decade, Chris Welch has been a firefighter with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue and a member of ski patrol at Steamboat Resort.
He’s also a swift water rescue instructor, traveling around the world teaching civilians and military groups technical rescue techniques. In August 2018, he added paramedic to his resume.
Welch is a competitive dirt bike racer, twice competing in the Baja 1000, the longest continuous off-road race in the world.
He’s also a patient with heart failure.
“It’s not really something you find in a healthy, super active 37-year-old guy,” Welch admits. “Being active is not a lifestyle; it is my life. I’m not going to let this slow me down.”
Living life, until it almost stopped
Welch has always been an active person with a love for the outdoors. He played sports growing up and excelled, playing football at the University of Idaho. Following graduation, he worked as a river guide on the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. After six years, he moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado where he became a ski patroller and firefighter.
It was the winter of 2013, and Welch was about to embark on a backcountry hut trip in Idaho with friends when he started to feel a little under the weather.
“We had started skinning in – I was on a split board – and I told my friends I had to call it,” said Welch. “I headed for home back in Steamboat, but after driving for a few hours, I stopped to get checked out. Something didn’t feel right.”
Within minutes of arriving at an emergency department in Boise, pulse oximetry and electrocardiogram tests pointed to v-tach, or ventricular tachycardia. Welch’s heart was beating rapidly due to improper electrical activity.
“They used a defibrillator on me to shock my heart back into proper rhythm,” said Welch. “They said I had likely been in v-tach for a few hours. Had it continued, my heart could have stopped.”
It was during surgery the next day to insert an internal defibrillator when doctors discovered the cause of the problem – Welch’s left ventricle wasn’t working properly. He was diagnosed with left ventricular cardiomyopathy.
“The left side of my heart wasn’t doing its job,” said Welch. “My ejection fraction was only 16 percent, whereas it should have been in the 50-70 percent range.”
Ejection fraction is the measurement of the heart’s ability to pump out blood. It compares the amount of blood in the heart’s chamber with the amount of blood being pumped out. Welch’s ejection faction was critically low.
“The heart doesn’t really heal itself, so I was feeling pretty grim,” said Welch. “It was tough. The doctors said this wasn’t something they saw very often, especially in a young guy like me.”
Following discharge, Welch drove back to Steamboat Springs. He reached out to Laura Sehnert, a trusted friend who happened to be an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, for a cardiologist recommendation for his follow-up care.
“Without hesitation, she said, ‘Go to Will [Baker],’” said Welch. “I knew of Dr. Baker from bringing heart patients to the emergency department from fire rescue and ski patrol. Now I was going to know him as a patient myself.”
Not a number
During Welch’s first appointment with Baker, they reviewed the series of events that had occurred.
“The placement of the defibrillator was necessary for Chris,” said Baker. “It’s a way for us to follow him and make sure there aren’t any additional ventricular tachycardia. The defibrillator works like an air bag in a car. It’s there doing nothing until you need it, and then it can save your life.”
Baker referred Welch to a specialist at UCHealth Heart Failure Clinic on the Anschutz Medical Campus, but Baker’s course of treatment was confirmed.
Welch was insistent on getting back to work as soon as possible.
“He acknowledged that I wasn’t a typical heart failure patient – it’s not normal for a healthy male in his thirties who works as a firefighter to go into heart failure,” said Welch. “Dr. Baker could have said, ‘Chris, you need to slow it down, really focus on your health, give up all the extreme activity.’ He took time to review the treatment guidelines and listened to me as to what I wanted for the rest of my life. He always treats me like a human and never a number on a chart. I will always be grateful for that.”
In order to go back to work, Welch needed to be medically cleared. Baker took some time to set parameters for Welch to meet over the next few months – no recurrent episodes, no additional shocks and successful completion of the Bruce protocol, a stress test used to evaluate a person’s cardiac function.
Months? That was a long time to wait, and Welch said anger started to creep up.
“This was a major wake up call, almost a reality check,” said Welch. “I felt like I had made it – I was a firefighter and ski patroller, living in Steamboat Springs. It doesn’t get much better than that, and then here I am, facing a heart failure diagnosis.”
Welch told himself he had two options –fall victim to the diagnosis and let the diagnosis overcome him, or overcome it.
He chose the latter.
“I was determined. I knew I could do it,” said Welch.
“With heart failure, there’s a pretty defined set of guideline-directed therapy, and Chris has thrived on it,” he said. “Chris has tolerated multiple medications without any concerning side effects. With the treatment, Chris’ heart function has shown considerable improvement. We’ve talked many times that as long as he stays on his meds, he can live a normal life.”
‘This is my time’
As Welch adjusted to his medications, put his health first and was cleared to return to work, he needed something to take his mind off his heart.
“I spent every last penny on a dirt bike,” he said. “I’m 100 percent sure it mentally saved my life. It presented a new challenge – as if I wasn’t facing enough challenges at the time. It became therapy for me.”
He continued to ride as he got stronger, and eventually he found himself in his first desert race. He was hooked.
Fast forward a few years, and Welch has completed the Baja 1000, twice. The off-road motorsport race is held annually on the Baja California Peninsula and can range from 600 to more than 1,000 miles in length. Both times, Welch had been part of a relay team, with the dirt bike serving as the baton.
His ultimate goal? To complete the Baja 1000 as a solo rider.
“It would be my final ‘coup de grace’ to heart failure – I win,” said Welch.
A big year ahead
2019 is shaping up to be a big year for Welch. He and his fiancé, Dominique Janku, are set to wed in September.
“She’s the kindest person I’ve met in my life,” said Welch, a smile stretching across his face. “We met on ski patrol. It’s pretty amazing that she’s willing to commit the rest of her life to a firefighter with a bad heart who races dirt bikes, but she said yes.”
Welch said Janku has helped him through everything – “she has both hands on my back, pushing me forward.” Janku, who works as an EMT at Yampa Valley Medical Center in addition to her ski patrol duties, understands the roads ahead for the couple, both medically and competitively.
“She’s my pit crew during races, right in the mix with everything,” said Welch. “She helps with gear, changing tires, supports me. We’re a true team.”
Welch said the future holds a number of cards. He loves his work – all three roles – and hopes to someday be a supervisor. He wants to continue racing dirt bikes, and said he and Janku would like to start a family.
“That would be a whole new kind of adventure,” he said.
Patient and physician, side by side
It’s not often a patient works alongside his physician to care for others, but it’s something Welch and Baker have experienced.
“Chris has brought in folks to the emergency department who have his condition or other cardiac conditions, and we’ve treated them together,” said Baker. “It’s fun to see him working with patients, especially when he has a heart condition a lot worse than people he’s bringing in. It not only gives him a unique perspective, but it also makes him a great example of how people can live, and thrive, with heart disease.”
Welch says he doesn’t think he’d be where he is today, or where he’s headed in the future, if his life hadn’t been affected by heart disease.
“Your background contributes to how you see things – we’re a product of our past experiences,” he said. “I’ve been the first responder and I’ve been the patient. I have the rest of my life ahead of me, largely thanks to Dr. Baker. I’m going to live it to the fullest.”