To say the past 24 months have challenged Jason Foster’s resilience and spirit on both a personal and professional level would be a gross understatement. In fact, there wouldn’t be many who have had to endure what Foster has been through. Over two feature articles in this edition ATM editor Brett Robinson track’s Foster’s incredible journey to come back from adversity not just once, but twice, and come out the other side a better person for it.
Jason Foster sits across the table in the Townsville Golf Club smoko room, clenching his sizeable hands into fists – first the left one, then the right, then the left again, then the right again. He’s not nervous or anxious, or about to clock one of his staff. Rather, it is something that has become second nature to him over the past 20 months, a constant and necessary ritual
Foster’s hands serve as a stark reminder, not that he needs it, of that fateful day back in early January 2018 when his life was forever changed. A freak workplace accident at Townsville Golf Club – an explosion at the on-site sewage treatment plant which supplied the course’s irrigation water – resulted in Foster receiving serious burns to a third of his body.
It was headline news in Townsville and around the country at the time, and the turf industry reacted in shock as they processed news that one of their own was in fighting for his life. For 12 days the then 43-year-old was placed in an induced coma as specialist doctors in Brisbane worked frantically around the clock to salvage what skin they could as well as perform three major skin graft operations to repair the worst affected areas.
The confronting photo, inset opposite, is what Foster looked like hours after he was brought out of his coma. You can see the line on his forehead where his hat was, the blistering skin on his forehead, and the breathing and feeding tubes. As he quips, he wasn’t looking his best that day, but he was awake, he could hear and he could see. He was alive.
In the weeks that followed, his doctors would convey to him the gravity of what had occurred and the extent of his injuries. Had the explosion happened 20 years ago, he’d likely be dead. Ten years ago, maybe a 50-50 chance of surviving. Thanks to advances made in the treatment of serious burns and the wonders of modern medical technology, Foster was given the best possible chance to make a full recovery. And he pretty much has.
Normally it takes well over two years for people with the extent of Foster’s injuries to even entertain the thought of returning to work. Beating the odds, he needed just five months to start making a gradual return to work and this October, some 20 months after the explosion, he finally recommenced full-time hours.
It has been a remarkable recovery and with the support of friends and family, his club and crew mates, Workcover, the myriad doctors and therapists who treated and counselled him, not to mention a fair dose of stubborn determination and a never-give-in attitude, Foster is living proof that you can overcome almost anything with a positive mindset.
11 January 2018 had started just like any other day for Foster. The heat and humidity at that time of year in Far North Queensland is oppressive and the Townsville Golf Club crew were in early to get as much done before the heat kicked in. Foster had sent the crew out on their daily runs and after attending to a few matters inside the shed made his way out on the course himself.
Up until that point, for the past 40 years the club had relied upon treated effluent water for its irrigation. Uniquely, the course had its own sewage treatment plant in the northeastern corner of the property, right on the banks of the Ross River.
As Foster attests, it was a temperamental thing and since he had arrived at the club as superintendent in 2011 had more than given him a few headaches due to its ageing infrastructure. In the year leading up to the fateful explosion, it had been a continual source of complaints from residents in the nearby suburb of Rosslea. The Queensland Department of Environment and Science even became involved, slapping an Environmental Protection Order on the club due to the bad odours emanating from the plant.
Part of Foster’s remit as superintendent was to make daily inspections of the plant to make sure it was operating correctly. Before Christmas 2017, a new pump had been installed to supply water into the treatment plant from the council line. However, there had been numerous teething problems and copious hours were spent trying to rectify why the new pump was continually shutting off. Foster even spent half of Christmas Day on course trying to get it to work.
Just before 7am on the 11th, Foster had again made the well-worn trek to the treatment plant. Sure enough the overflow weir was low, indicating that the pump had again shut off overnight. Making his way around to the pump station, he put his hand out to open the gate and the next thing there was a bright orange flash and a loud bang. A build-up of methane gas had ignited and Foster copped it full force.
“I can recall everything vividly,” says Foster, still doing his hand exercises. “I remember looking down and my polyester shirt was gone – melted – and then I looked at my hands. The skin was literally dripping off them and it was then that I knew I was in trouble.
“I remember looking around and thinking I had to get fresh water on me quick. I looked at the tap at the plant, the river and then back to the clubhouse about 500m away and knew there were showers in the locker rooms. I jumped in the Workman, which has a spreader on the back of it, and took off.
Originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal (Volume 21.6 Nov-Dec 2019).