Dr. Katherine Welch is the kind of person who doesn't settle for second best.
If she is not satisfied with the way things are going, she's not afraid to take matters into her own hands.
"I love challenges," Welch said. "I see something that's huge and I say, 'I'll take that on.'"
For almost two decades, Welch has taken on the issue of human trafficking and exploitation of men and women in Thailand and throughout Asia. Her journey began more than 18 years ago, when she traveled to work abroad in Thailand as a fourth-year medical student at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"I saw the problem, and I saw it as a challenge," Welch said. "I knew I could do something about it, and it was personal. I didn't originally go to Thailand to work on human trafficking, but when you see the refugees, you get to know these people, it becomes personal. When you hear their stories, you get fired up. So that, combined with the blessing of having an American medical education, I said, 'Let's see what I can do with this.'"
Since that time, the Fort Wayne native has dedicated her career to doing humanitarian work throughout Asia. In 2011, she founded Relentless. The nonprofit group helps organizations that lack health/medical experience develop more robust, holistic and integrated approaches to improving health and wellness for survivors of human trafficking and exploitation.
The organization has three main prongs: educating those who work with survivors of abuse and exploitation about the mental and physical health consequences of human trafficking; conducting clinical consultations to educate doctors about addressing the trauma associated with such patients; and mobilizing health professionals to understand their role in fighting what Welch refers to as modern-day slavery.
"It is not just about providing job training, an apartment, money," she said. "Survivors need those things, but they also need the support to heal from the trauma, which can be much more prolonged than people realize. My focus is to mobilize more health care professionals to leverage their skills in tackling this issue."
Joe Burnell, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Indianapolis, had the opportunity to see Welch's determination first-hand when she was a student in his chemistry classes. He was also her premedical advisor at UIndy and encouraged her to attend medical school.
Although he lost track of his former student right after graduation, they reconnected some years later, and Burnell has followed her work ever since. Burnell said he is not surprised that Welch, who he describes as "the most positive person I know," has devoted her career to helping others.
"For Katherine, nothing she did was about getting attention, being fashionable or gaining prestige or money," he said. "It was always about moving forward to do the right thing. It does not surprise me that she is doing something that is outside the mainstream that is focused more on doing good than on getting attention."
Soon, Welch will expand her work into Germany, working with survivors there. She will continue serving as a trainer and consultant for Pink Door Berlin, a safe house that provides after-care and integration programs for women and their children who are survivors of all forms of sexual exploitation.
Rhonda Phillips, founder and director of Pink Door Berlin, began working with Welch in 2014 when her organization started using Welch's Bridge Guides resources to develop good health practices in their safe house.
Not only is Welch an expert in the field of trauma-informed care and passionate about the topic of human trafficking, Phillips said, she is also caring, compassionate and tenacious. She has dedicated her life to bringing respect, quality care, dignity and a chance at a better life to survivors of abuse, exploitation and human trafficking, Phillips said.
"Because of her vast experience and travels, Katherine has a keen sense of the needs of the exploited, the exploiter and those who care for survivors," she said. "She faces these needs head on. She fights for the rights of the vulnerable with tenacity. She definitely embodies the name of her organization, 'Relentless.'"
As she continues her work, Welch said she is encouraged by the positive attention it has garnered. Looking back on her journey, as a young college student who wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to do, Welch said she was fortunate to have mentors like Burnell who "saw more in me than I saw in myself at the time."
Although she has had much support along the way, Welch has definitely carved her own path.
"Early on, I was trying to partner with other organizations, and I decided I had to go at it on my own," she said. "No one else was doing what I was doing. I see what needs to be done and I'm going to go for it."