The evening of July 1 started like any other for Joseph Foster.
Arriving home from his summer job mowing lawns, Foster pulled chicken nuggets from the freezer for dinner.
Instead of baking them as usual, he decided to try frying them in a pan of oil.
As the oil heated up, he stepped away from the stove for a minute.
When he came back: fire.
“I picked up the pan and started walking backwards,” Foster said. “I was going to set it outside in the yard.”
But on his way, he caught his heel on the corner of the hallway, slipped on drool from his 110-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Murphy, and fell to the floor.
He dropped the flaming pan onto himself.
A whirlwind of adrenaline-fueled action followed.
Running outside to stop, drop and roll.
Grabbing his cell phone, only to find the battery at 1%.
Searching for his charger.
Calling his fiancé.
Extinguishing the bag of dog food that had caught fire.
Running upstairs to get his wallet.
Finally, he gave Murphy, who had hidden upstairs, a pat and said, “Dad got hurt. I’ll be back in a little bit.
“I was definitely in shock. I didn’t really feel anything,” said Foster, 31, who teaches social studies at St. Johns Middle School in St. Johns, Michigan, north of Lansing. “I knew I was in trouble. I knew it was not good.”
The opportunity to heal
The pain hit him when he saw the EMTs react to his condition.
They transported Foster to the nearest hospital in Lansing.
Within a few hours, an ambulance then transferred him to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
There, doctors from the Spectrum Health Regional Burn Center jumped into action.
Doctors at the burn center are acute care surgeons specializing in burn surgery, according to Alistair Chapman, MD. They’re surrounded by a team of specialists, including nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and others.
That first night, Amy Spencer, MD, a member of that team, whisked Foster into surgery for debridement—removing the burned tissue.
The worst of his injuries entailed a third-degree burn on his left arm, spanning from his forearm to his bicep, all the way around the arm.
He also suffered second-degree burns on the tops of his feet and on his right hand, forearm, neck and shoulder.
“With a young, healthy person like Joe, we wanted to give his body the opportunity to heal the burns,” Dr. Chapman said. “A lot of the burns over the course of three weeks did heal, but the left arm would not budge.”
Before the end of his three weeks in the hospital, Foster would undergo a few more debridement procedures, as well as a skin graft which moved healthy tissue from his left thigh to his left arm.
The burn team working together is what allows them to help patients like Foster, Dr. Chapman said.
“Burn victims require 24/7 care,” Dr. Chapman said. “Their injuries are complex and they need providers that are immediately available around the clock to take care of them. No one person can do that.”
Their passion for taking care of burn victims was evident to Foster.
“The nurses and doctors of the sixth floor south were absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “It didn’t feel like three weeks. It went really fast… Honestly, as crazy as it sounds, it was enjoyable. They were unbelievable.”
They were all focused on getting Foster back to his active life.
“The most important thing is that we get a good functional outcome to get patients back to the things they enjoy doing,” Dr. Chapman said.
And in Foster’s case, everyone knew that was duck hunting.
“He’s a very down-to-earth guy,” Dr. Chapman said. “He wants to teach, enjoy his fiancé and duck hunt.”
Duck hunting season is certainly on Foster’s mind as he follows the strict protocol of home care that his therapists and doctors gave him. It includes lathering his wounds with cocoa butter and stretching his neck and left arm to continue to improve his range of motion.
“I work on it every day,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’s focused on teaching and spending time with his fiancé, Alexa, also a teacher. He moves forward with a new appreciation for the simple things.
“Before something like this happens, you feel invincible,” he said. “You realize life is precious.
“I was very fortunate in a very unfortunate situation.”