A passionate belief in supporting others through life’s traumas and obstacles has kept David Welch on track through a series of intense and caring jobs.
His latest challenge, taken up at the beginning of August, is as chief executive of the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance and he can hardly believe his luck.
“This is an absolutely fantastic organisation and everyone I have met so far has demonstrated the same total dedication to the charity’s work,” he told me, as we sat chatting in his office overlooking Rochester Airfield on a damp, miserable morning. “I feel really privileged and lucky to be in this role.”
The enthusiasm remains throughout the hour-long interview and I see how inspiring it must be to work alongside this gentle Scot with a big heart. He genuinely seems to believe in himself, his colleagues and the organisation 100%.
David was born and brought up in Glasgow, the only child of an architect and a stay-at-home mum, both of whom he clearly adored. After a standard state school education, he went to Glasgow University to study history and economics, a time he remembers with great fondness for friendships, activity and learning to undertake research.
When he graduated, David went into retail, completing a fast-track management qualification with Boots, before joining BHS and M&S in similar roles. By the age of 28 he was director of operations in Scotland for the aid charity Concern, which had offices in Ireland, the UK and the United States as well as around the world. A directorship with Mercy Corps, a US-based organisation specialising in overseas aid, followed. Both roles involved several trips to troubled parts of the world, including Angola and Rwanda, where he witnessed traumatic scenes of war and of refugees struggling to cope with the aftermath of genocide. “Powerful images stay with you,” he told me, his eyes showing his concern, even after 25 years. “I remember seeing a mother bundling her child on to an evacuation flight, but failing to get in herself because of the crush of other desperate people.”
Work in a centre for children separated from their parents in post-genocide Rwanda followed. Here, David remembers the poignant pictures they drew – images of violence and tragedy vividly illustrating the horrors those young eyes had seen.
His travels to troubled areas of the world included Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Kosovo. What impressed David throughout was the strength of human spirit, the courage to keep going against the odds and the determination to make a better life.
David left the aid sector when his parents’ health began to deteriorate and he returned to Scotland to take up a director role with a hospice, followed by deputy chief executive with a national children’s charity, before becoming chief executive with an organisation he established called Beatson Cancer Charity, where he set up a support network of holistic care for cancer patients and their families, treatments and support not available on the hard-pressed NHS.
Here he breaks off from his life story to share his passion for the work of the health service. “It is the best in the world. I believe in it and I admire everyone who works in it,” he says, emotionally. “But it’s struggling, because we are all living longer and everything costs more – technology, drugs and treatment. The time has come to take a new approached to philanthropy, to re-engage all sectors and build on the goodwill of the public. There is so much good work in the wider community supporting different aspects of the NHS that if brought together could achieve even more.”
David saw a glimpse of his utopian ideals when he set up an organisation in Yorkshire called Leeds Cares, where he used what he calls “the power of collaboration” to pull together all aspects of support for the NHS within the community. In just two years, he was able to attract £73 million to support the healthcare system. He left in the summer to take up the air ambulance role and hopes the good work he helped set in place there will continue.
In his new role, he will oversee the running and further development of the lifesaving medical charity. Based at Redhill and Rochester, the highly skilled medical teams and support staff use state-of-the-art helicopters, emergency response vehicles, innovative technology, cutting-edge medical equipment and techniques to provide 24/7, world-class, pre-hospital emergency treatment and care. David describes the service as “among the very best and most innovative in the country – if not the world”. And he means it.
The view is shared by Dutch electronics firm Philips, which has just signed an agreement to supply the Kent, Surrey and Sussex air ambulance with the latest in technology to allow information to be streamed direct from patients in flight to hospitals across the South East, including electrocardiogram, body temperature, heart rhythm, and respiration rate. It is a world first, David tells me proudly.
He pauses from his impassioned delivery, looking relaxed in his open-necked mauve shirt and dark suit, to look me directly in the eye. “Our vision is that no one should die as the result of unexpected trauma, or medical emergency” he says. “We are dealing with people at a critical time of their life and we have to do the very best we can for them.”