Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the Dec. 24 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
Jason Foster, a pediatrician and the co-founder of Bentonville Pediatrics, always loved Africa. Having grown up in the country, he thought he might return there to work one day.
Foster, 48, was named to Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class in 2005, three years after co-founding Bentonville Pediatrics. After about seven years as a pediatrician, he decided it was time to start looking to return to Africa.
In summer 2008, he visited Mali, Niger and Morocco, and a hospital in Mali invited him to come there to work. He agreed, and in November 2009, he left Bentonville Pediatrics, sold his house and car, and spent about six months raising money for living expenses in Mali. He also went to France for about eight months and learned to speak French again as Mali is a French-speaking country. He previously learned French while growing up as a child of missionary parents in West Africa, but that was 20 years before, and he needed to refresh.
Foster arrived in Mali in September 2010 and joined another pediatrician at a women’s and children’s hospital. The other pediatrician, who was director of the pediatric department, left after about two years, and Foster became department director and began leading a team of nurses and another doctor.
“We took care of tons and tons and tons of sick kids, primarily with malaria,” Foster said.
Before the other pediatrician left, he’d wanted to start treating children with cancer, and they were able to bring in chemotherapy drugs. They started to treat children with leukemia and other cancers. The hospital handled inpatient and outpatient work, and the nurses would see most of the outpatient children. Foster would supervise their work and complete rounds in the hospital.
The pediatric department had 40 beds, and the women’s department had 60 beds. But sometimes the pediatric department would exceed its capacity. “Kids would share beds or have a mat on the floor,” he said. Rooms were set up in wards, but some were semiprivate.
The hospital was a nonprofit organization, but patients were charged a small fee. Money for the hospital was raised in the United States, and from that, Foster would receive a salary. Foster received donations from churches and friends and others who supported his work in Mali. That money would go to nonprofit organization The Alliance, which was given to the hospital.
About two-thirds of Mali is in the Sahara Desert, and the part in which Foster lived was in the sub-Saharan region. It’s grasslands with small trees, and it only rains about three months out of the year.
“It’s hot, dry and dusty,” Foster said. “It would easily get to 105, 110 degrees in hot season.” The hospital was open air and had fans but no air conditioning. Only his bedroom had an air conditioner. “Got used to it to some degree. There’s only a certain amount of heat you can actually get used to, but you did it. You lived with it.”
He was in Mali about six to nine months at a time and returned home once or twice annually to visit family and friends. Most Christmases he was home. Between trips home, the longest stretch in Mali was 13 consecutive months.
Foster rejoined Bentonville Pediatrics in September 2015. When asked if he would go back to Africa, he said he would to visit but not to work full-time.
“I wouldn’t do that to my partner again,” he joked. Foster owns Bentonville Pediatrics with pediatrician Kimberly Cadle. After he left for Mali, his patients were split among Cadle and other pediatricians. The 5,000-square-foot clinic has about 10 staff and room for four pediatricians, and another pediatrician replaced him after he left.
The clinic has between 100 and 120 patients per day. Foster sees 30-35 patients daily during cold and flu season, and as of mid-November, the clinic had given more than 700 flu vaccines. Also, the clinic offers allergy testing and looks to expand this and to extend its hours in order to see patients after hours. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Foster supports Help One Now and enjoys traveling. He lives in downtown Bentonville, and his parents recently moved to Bella Vista from Dallas.