What happens when your life alters in a split second and everything you know is thrown into disarray? As BP's global head of operations, it's Fuzzy Bitar's job to lead teams around the world to produce oil and gas safely, reliably and efficiently every day. But, as he explains here, a life-changing accident on a beach holiday has seen him adapt the way in which he gets that message across...
"I was on holiday on the Indonesian island of Bali with my wife and children when my life changed completely. BP had just brought online the Tangguh gas plant, situated in a remote part of the country. After three years of hard work, it was time for a rest. On this particular day, my son and I were playing in the sea, when a freak wave picked me up and slammed me onto the beach. I was knocked unconscious, face down in shallow water. When I came to, not only couldn’t I breathe, I couldn’t move anything.
Luckily, my wife saw this happen and, with the help of some tourists, pulled me from the water. Emergency services in that part of the world are very basic, but I was also lucky enough to know someone that I could telephone who knew how to arrange a medical evacuation by aeroplane. While waiting for it to arrive I was taken to the International SOS clinic on the island and, as my family left to go to the hotel, with the kids in shock, it was then I realised this was a very serious situation.
Medical complications and very low moments
I was eventually flown to Singapore, where I spent three weeks in intensive care, battling a series of medical complications and some very low moments. For a long time, my prognosis was, at best, unpredictable and, at worst, looking like I might never walk again. Those first few weeks were about survival, but the thought of my wife and family – of still being of use to them – kept me going.
Only once I was moved to a high dependency unit, still in Singapore, did I start to think about the longer-term future. I would still need months of rehabilitation (I was later moved to a unit back in London) but it was at this point that I started to believe that things could improve and that I had better get on with it. Slowly I began to learn how to sit down, stand, use the bars. I had to re-teach my body how to use a knife and fork, put my shoes on and even go to the toilet. I’ve always been pretty determined, but the accident has made me more so. I believe that if you give everything your best shot then you will never look back with regret. Today, things are much better than I ever imagined they could be. I can walk, go offshore, and despite ongoing pain and physical difficulties, I live a very independent life.
Breaking down problems into manageable pieces
More than anything, the situation taught me that you can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you respond. All of us will face what may seem like overwhelming problems at some point in our lives. The key is to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Supporting one another is also crucial. I would not have got through this experience without friends, family, colleagues and other patients in the rehabilitation unit. This connection to others has helped me to adopt a more supportive style in my work. I want to help our people be the best they can be, rather than simply pushing them to work harder. That’s why I spend a lot of time talking to our operational teams. In fact, when I visit a facility I ask the managers to leave the room so that I can talk to the operators and technicians. You have to approach this in the right way – it’s not about cutting the managers out of the conversation – but safety starts at the ground level and these visits help me stay connected.
Listening and acting on it
The challenge for leaders is to hear it and do something about it, otherwise you’ll lose credibility. Ultimately, it is down to us as leaders to set the conditions that will help our people to do their job. It is important not to give conflicting priorities and to create the space in which a strong safety culture can flourish. When I reflect on what happened, I recall it as a positive experience. It has taught me to value the simpler things. Before the accident I had been interested in what type of watch I had and the clothes I was wearing. My hospital room in Singapore had a small window through which I could see trees moving in the wind and I yearned to be walking outside. You certainly learn to appreciate things that you previously took for granted when they are taken away from you. Things get better with time. Never give up. You may just surprise yourself. Draw on the love of your friends and family. Nurture it and prioritise it in your life, as it is more important than anything else. In a time of crisis these are the people who will get you through."