Special to LOVIN’ LIFE AFTER 50
Dr. Kevin Foster, renowned burn surgeon and director of the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health, has dedicated his career to providing first-class care to those in need.
With more than 25 years of experience, the 61-year-old Cave Creek resident is considered one of the preeminent burn specialists in the nation. He’s saved countless lives through his work.
From innovative treatments to pioneering medical research, he has proven to be an invaluable asset to the medical community. He’s also become the face of the Arizona Burn Center, one of the busiest burn centers in the country.
Hired by Valleywise Health in 1999, Foster never believed he would still be there in 2023. Ask anyone in the industry, it’s not common for a doctor to stay in one spot for that long, let alone at the first job after years of medical training.
Foster cited the freedom he has been given to organize his own team and the support Valleywise Health provides him as the main reasons he has stayed there.
“We tend to hang on to our staff for quite a while. They like being a member of this team and where we work,” Foster said. “Everybody on our team could go someplace else and make more money, but they choose to stay here because they believe in the work we’re doing.”
As Arizona’s only nationally verified burn center, and one that services much of the Southwest, the Arizona Burn Center treats injuries related to flames, chemicals, electrical injuries and scalds. The Arizona Burn Center also provides treatment for complicated skin infections and disorders, such as necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria.
“I get to take care of people when they are at their absolute worst,” Foster said. “A big burn injury is the worst thing that’s going to happen to any person in their lifetime, and we get to take care of these people and make them better.”
According to Foster, even through numerous administration changes at Valleywise Health, he has always been supported.
“They have always said to the burn care team, ‘You do what you need to do to take care of patients, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it.’ And that’s still our method of operation here. That’s never changed,” Foster said. “There are very few places in the Western world where you get to practice medicine like that.”
As many would imagine, the combination of top-notch resources and a team that genuinely cares about their work results in some of the best care in the country. According to Valleywise Health, the Arizona Burn Center treats more than 8,000 burn injuries a year and provides critically injured patients a greater than 98% survival rate, one of the highest rates in the nation.
Exploring new paths
Throughout his time at Valleywise, Foster and his team have helped pioneer new advancements through several research and clinical trials. One that they participated in that has brought significant change to the burn care industry is a spray-on-skin product created by ReCell.
Foster saw a presentation on the product by ReCell about 15 years ago, and he knew then and there that it could help make significant strides in the industry. The product’s original purpose was to treat severe burns, but Foster and the team saw the opportunity for broader use.
A special clinical trial at Valleywise Health was cleared for use on a couple who had sustained burns to 60% of their bodies. In this trial, they saw the product have success when treating less severe burns. This study ultimately propelled FDA approval of the product.
Since receiving FDA approval, Foster said that using the healing spray instead of staples or stitches has significantly helped how they treat kids.
“The way that the skin spray is now used in burn care in the United States is the way that we thought it should be used, and it’s made a big improvement in the care of a lot of patients,” Foster said. “It’s been really gratifying over these two decades to be involved with so many products and techniques that have resulted in interval improvement in burn care. I don’t think that you’ll find another center that’s had that much impact on burn care as we have had.”
The courage to ‘rise’ up
In the summer of 2020, eight burn survivors who were treated by Foster and his team at Valleywise Health were set to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a journey orchestrated by Valleywise Health Foundation, the health system’s charitable 501(c)(3) partner, and led by K2 Adventure Travel. But as so many other things were in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed their plans.
The trip was put on pause for two years and resumed in the summer of 2022. Foster joined the survivors on the trip and mentioned how fulfilling it was to see all eight of his former patients summit the 19,341-feet-high peak after six days of hiking.
“The trip ended up being something really spiritual for a lot of us. It wasn’t just something that was accomplished; it was something much more than that,” Foster said.
“And to climb Kilimanjaro is difficult. Most people who haven’t been burned have a tough time doing it. And then you take people whose lives were literally threatened and who’ve had significant disabilities and dysfunction, and to have them all make it is just really amazing.”
As if he wasn’t surrounded by enough stories of perseverance, Foster and his daughter, Katie, who attended the trip, were faced with their own dilemma while on the hike. After the first couple of days, neither tolerated the food provided for the team.
Luckily, Foster had packed a case of his favorite candy bars, Payday. They credit bringing this case of peanut caramel bars with getting them through the hike and ensuring them their own happy ending.
“We basically lived on Paydays for the final three days of hiking until we got to the summit,” Foster said.
“They have always been my favorite candy bar, and they still will be. If we hadn’t had them, I’m really worried that we wouldn’t have made it because I literally did not eat anything except Paydays for three days.”
Overall, Team Courage Rising raised over $350,000 for the new Diane & Bruce Halle Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health, which is due to open in October. According to Foster, the new burn center will be nearly triple in size and offer an added focus on patient care after their initial inpatient care.
“The new burn center is really set up to help take care of people as outpatients. When people are in the hospital with a burn injury, part of that is kind of easy because everything is done for them and we do that really, really well,” Foster said.
“But then, when they leave the hospital and are in their home, they have to deal with being at home and how do I drive? How do I go back to work? How do I deal with all these scars? Now that’s going to be a part of caring for them, is that even though you leave the burn center physically, we are still going to help you in any way that we can.”
The number of opportunities to not only continue doing great work but to also participate in industry-altering trials and keep up with patients through once-in-a-lifetime experiences is something that not many health centers can provide.
Beyond the scrubs
In addition to his love for hiking and peanut-covered caramel and nougat, he has a multitude of hobbies to keep his body and mind sharp for the grueling days spent at the burn center.
On his days off, instead of taking care of patients, Foster takes care of animals. His family has five horses, two miniature donkeys and one pony on their property.
“My wife and daughter are equestrian people,” Foster said. “My wife does horse therapy in the backyard, and it’s my job to pick the stalls every once in a while and do repairs when I can.”
His other hobbies include mountain biking near his house in Cave Creek and practicing taekwondo, in which he is a second-degree black belt.