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Making a Lemon into Lemonade

Former McLean Orchestra horn player tackles life with brain cancer via his own patient-friendly community Web site.

In retrospect, David Welch admits there were warning signs indicating that something might be wrong, but at the time, the 38-year-old simply assumed he was feeling the side effects of 80 and 90-hour work weeks. He often suffered from extreme fatigue, and there were nights when he would wake suddenly, as extreme nausea sent him sprinting to the bathroom to throw up. He temporarily lost consciousness after one such episode, but he remained unconcerned.

“I just thought I was stressed,” said Welch, who founded Rivermine Software in 2001 with two childhood friends from Garfield Cadets and Drum Bugle Corps.

Even after waking up one night in early December 2004 to discover blood all over his pillow, Welch had an explanation for himself. Taking note of his aching muscles and extreme exhaustion, he attributed his symptoms to the flu.

“I can laugh about it now, but I actually went to Target that night and bought Ny-Quil,” said Welch.

At a Rivermine management meeting the following day, his long-time friend and business partner Doug Rutherford felt compelled to say something.

“He said ‘David, things aren’t quite right here,’” said Welch. “And he pushed me to go to the hospital.”

Two hours and one MRI later at Inova Fairfax Hospital, David Welch found himself examining an image that showed a tumor roughly the size of a lemon, firmly ensconced in the center of his brain.

“It was a pretty big honker,” said Welch.

A SELF-DESCRIBED “military brat,” Welch lived in Panama, Germany, Oklahoma and Kansas before his parents finally settled in Springfield, Va. He attended Lake Braddock High School and went on to study at Virginia Polytechnic University. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Welch spent some time working for Andersen Consulting — now Accenture — before founding Rivermine Software with his childhood band friends.

Welch never strayed far from his long-time love, brass music. A horn player since his middle school days, Welch helped to start, and was a member of, the Quintessential Brass Repertoire (QBR), which performs at the annual Great Falls Fourth of July celebration among many other venues. He was also a member of the McLean Orchestra from 1992 to 2004, only leaving due to his intense working hours at Rivermine.

“I still remember the last concert I played with them — it was on Valentine’s Day 2004, so I played all the way through the year I was diagnosed with brain cancer,” said Welch.

When Welch found out that he had a lemon-sized tumor caused by brain cancer, he remained surprisingly calm.

“There was so much going on and I didn’t really realize intellectually what was happening,” said Welch. “Everybody reacts differently and there’s no right way to respond, but my heart really didn’t skip a beat. I think my engineering mindset from Virginia Tech kicked in and I took on a very clinical approach to it.”

After a brain biopsy four days later, Welch found out that he fortunately had a slow-growing, not a fast-growing tumor. However, he was quickly told by medical institutions around the country that his tumor was inoperable due to its close proximity to the center of his brain. Essentially, it was too far in to his brain to be safely removed, and he had five to six years to live. Undeterred, Welch continued to do research aided by his friend Doug Rutherford, among others. Rutherford eventually came across New York University’s Dr. Patrick Kelly, one of the top three neurosurgeons in the world.

Kelly had invented tools to operate on tumors proclaimed “inoperable,” and had used them on 40 patients with roughly the same diagnosis as Welch since 1999. He offered to take Welch on, and Welch did not hesitate in saying yes. On May 5, 2005, he went in for surgery.

“They were hoping to get much more of the tumor, but they got roughly 50 percent,” sad Welch. “But it’s cancerous – it’s not like a plum in a pudding that you can pull out … it’s like having a bucket of sand and every grain in that bucket of sand is the tumor. So what happens if you turn that bucket upside-down on a green lawn? Each one of those grains is a cancerous cell that can grow into another lemon — it’s pretty intense stuff.”

Grim analogy aside, Welch remains optimistic and determined. He currently undergoes chemotherapy every 28 days, and although it is a grueling roller coaster cycle of fatigue and nausea, he keeps his eye on the prize — more years of life.

“If I was told that I had to have surgery again, I’d say OK because doing all of these things buys time,” said Welch. “There are major developments taking place in the world of brain surgery and brain cancer research and that’s not just nice talk and hopeful thinking … there are clinical trials and things that are happening that are innovative, so the more time you buy in this environment, the better.”

WHAT HAS HELPED Welch cope the best is yet another organization that he founded himself: 38 Lemon. On the community Web site 38Lemon.org — named for his age at diagnosis and the size of his tumor — Welch posts personal photos, tumor-inspired artwork, medical information, discussion boards and his own daily journal entries that begin right from his initial diagnosis. Welch started the Web site immediately after finding out about his tumor, primarily because he found a glaring lack of information from the patient’s perspective when he first began researching his condition.

“But ultimately, the reason that I’m doing this is that I know I can’t control the brain cancer, but the one thing I can control is the exponentiation of what I’m learning, and that is therapeutic,” said Welch. “In the end, I am getting way more out of this than I am putting into it physically and financially.”

Welch’s mother Susan Miller said that she is very proud of what her son has achieved, although she sometimes wishes he would take a slightly less clinical approach to his condition.

“David is what happens when a Type A personality gets a brain tumor,” joked Miller. “I’d like to see him smell the roses a little more, but I guess this is his version of smelling the roses. I think he’s doing what works for him — he’s never had anything that he couldn’t study into submission. He graduated summa cum laude from Virginia Tech and now he wants to graduate summa cum laude in brain tumors. He’s a terrific son, a little intense sometimes, but a terrific son.”

But Miller said she quickly realized that her son needed her to be a support line and not an advice-giver.

“My job is to supply him with information,” she said. “He’s the one attacking this.”

She added that the experience of the last two years has re-negotiated the dynamics of their family relationships and also inspired her to take her focus off the business she owned for 20 years to head into semi-retirement.

“You basically realize, hey, what’s important?” said Miller.