The first anniversary brought tears to Colin Potts, more for what he has gained than what he lost since he had his left leg amputated below the knee a year ago.
The anniversary present came earlier this month in the form of a running foot that will allow Potts, a former Maryland Terrapin Club president, to resume a more vigorous level of activity than he has had in nearly a decade.
“When I first started running on the treadmill for 15 minutes, it’s not something I had done for seven years,” Potts, 50, said Friday. “It was such a sense of accomplishment, and also just freedom.
“Every step was invigorating, every step was exciting, because I didn’t think within a year [after the amputation] I would be doing that and really start to get back to a real, normal lifestyle.”
A former high school and college club team lacrosse player, Potts looks at it as investment in his future, one that he hopes includes trying to qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Potts said it will allow him to go from walking 3 miles a day to running; he also hopes it improves his ability to do yoga.
Calling the cost of the device — around $15,000 — “an investment in my future,” Potts acknowledged that he is putting years of pain and struggle behind him.
“It’s been difficult, but I’m getting my life back,” he said. “That’s why I fight every day for every step.”
Unlike professional and college athletes — or even weekend warriors — who get back onto the playing field or court after recovering from injuries that involve repairing broken bones or torn ligaments, Potts is making an even more remarkable comeback.
On Dec. 1, 2016, Potts lost his left leg below the knee. It came after doctors told him that the 20 surgeries he had endured since 2000 were not enough to stabilize the left foot he first injured taking a misstep at the bottom of a staircase at his home in Chevy Chase.
As much as he prepared during the 3½ months between the diagnosis and the amputation at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, Potts said going through the 21st surgery was a lot more emotional.
“Twenty other surgeries, I woke up and I still had my foot,” he said. “This one, I looked down and it’s not there. I don’t think you can prepare for it. You can talk about it. I remember asking them if I could walk into the [operating room] because I knew it was the last time I would walk on my two feet."
Said his wife of 15 years, Ann: “It’s like anything else. It’s like losing a loved one. Even if they’re suffering and you’re getting to the end, it still, as Colin said, hits you like a two-by-four. Even if you’re expecting it and you know it’s going to happen, it’s something that is still very devastating.”
A lifelong Maryland fan who was Terrapin Club president from 2012 to 2013, Potts is well-known throughout the athletic department as one of school’s most supportive boosters.
“His energy’s always been contagious,” said Terps field hockey coach Missy Meharg, who has become a close friend to Potts and his wife. “I’ve never been around someone who’s so eternally positive.”
Acting Maryland athletic director Damon Evans echoes that sentiment, shared by many of Potts’ friends.
“I tell Colin all the time — he’s the most positive person I’ve ever met,” Evans said Wednesday. “To understand the pain that he was dealing with for a number of years and how he continued to fight through it, I find that amazing and it said a lot about the individual.
“But when he made the decision that it was time to have the leg amputated, that took another level of courage. This guy is up and ready to take the next challenge. First it’s let’s get back to walking … and now it’s ‘How am I going to get back to running?’ ”
Meharg acknowledges that she was a bit skeptical when she visited Potts at home shortly after he returned from New York following the amputation. When she saw him again this fall at one of his legendary tailgate parties before a football game, Meharg was amazed at her friend’s progress.
“What’s surprised me is his vigilance to get back,” Meharg said. “Athletes go through injuries. I have not seen a mindset of such understanding of hope. I think he beat a lot of odds in what he is doing.”
A way of life
The first time Ann went out on a date with her future husband, a few months after the first surgery to repair the tendons he had torn and the bone he had broken in his left foot, Potts was getting around on crutches.
“It should have been a giveaway right there,” she joked recently.
By the time they were married two years later, the crutches and walking boot had become a way of life. Potts, who was born with high arches, kept tearing the peroneal tendon in his left foot. He had to quit his job as a chef and take a more sedentary position in finance.
Potts eventually had heel surgery where doctors tried to turn the foot to take pressure off the tendon. He had surgery to stretch the Achilles. As the surgeries mounted, Potts developed nerve damage.
After more than a dozen similar operations, Potts had more serious fusion surgery performed with hopes of stabilizing the foot. Nine months after the second fusion surgery, he was still struggling.
Potts went to see specialists at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York in August 2016.
“They told me there’s nothing left but amputation,” Potts said. “It was in the back of my mind, but I never thought it would happen because I’m at the best orthopedic hospital in the country. … All of a sudden, my life changed dramatically. It sucked the wind out of me.”
Dr. Jonathan Deland, who performed the amputation as well as a few of the operations that preceded it, said Potts’ medical history is a little unusual for an amputee. Typically, amputations are the result of diabetes, infection or trauma, such as a car accident.
“For people with unremitting pain, they cannot walk, their life is miserable,” Deland said. “There is a reluctance sometimes on the patient’s side, because they don’t want to give up a limb, or on the doctor’s side, because it’s admitting failure.”
Potts had another request shortly after the surgery.
“I woke up and I said, ‘I want to walk,’ and they said, ‘You can’t, you just got out of surgery,’ “ he recalled. “I got out of bed, and they gave me a walker and I walked three steps. Later that night, it was five steps. The next day, I said, ‘Get rid of my walker, I want my crutches.’ “
Within three days, he made it up and down the hallway of the New York hospital.
“I was on my way,” Potts said.
Never giving up
Potts received his first prosthesis in March 2017.
It’s a tedious and often painful process of having what’s left of the limb, which is still healing, fit comfortably into the device. Then there’s the rehabilitation to learn how to walk, and eventually exercise, with the prosthesis.
“He said, ‘My friend, tell me, what can we do? How I’m going to progress? Do you think this is going to work for me? I just want to run, I want to walk, I want to get back to my life,’ “ said Farhad Ostovari, the physical therapist who oversaw Potts' rehabilitation in Maryland.
What stood out to Ostovari was Potts’ personality.
“When he comes to the room, everyone starts smiling,” Ostovari said. “He brings that kind of vibe into the room, and allows everyone to just jump out of their seat and start doing whatever he tells them to do. He wants to get it done, so I’m helping him to get to the next level.”
Said Deland: “He’s going to try to do the surgery because he’s going to be optimistic and possibly try to do more than he should to try to save it. If you can relieve pain, he’s going to a have a good result. Some people get impossibly depressed, which adds to their symptoms and makes life more unbearable. … The fact that he had a good result is a testament to him.”
It was much different after Potts had the second fusion surgery performed.
“To think six months after the prior surgery, he still hadn’t recovered,” Ann said. “To see him six months after the last surgery — not even six months, he was fitted for his prosthesis in three months — it made us realize what a right decision it was.”
Back to work
A few months after receiving his prosthesis, Potts took a job as the chief operating officer at Regenerative Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in North Bethesda.
“We try to provide an alternative to surgery by using things in the body to heal the body,” Potts said. “It’s really exciting to me. In my job, if I can help one person avoid one surgery and avoid one-1,000th of what I went through, that’s a great day and a great way to come to work.”
Potts is also writing a book, with the working title of “Woe Is Not Me,” where he will try to inspire others who are facing amputation and other similar transformative and traumatic events to not give up.
“A lot of people don’t have the will,” he said. “It’s a significant shock to your body.”
Potts recalled meeting a stroke victim at a local rehabilitation clinic in Rockville while they were both going through rehab.
“This one gentleman, he had two strokes. He said he was never going to walk,” Potts said. “I said, ‘You’re going to walk because I’m going to walk.’ At that point, I had gotten my prosthesis and I had come flying through the clinic. It caught everyone’s attention quickly.”
Over the next few months, Potts saw the same man occasionally and told him that he, too, would be walking again, maybe even running.
“One day I was going to an amputee meeting and I walked right by him and I didn’t recognize him because he was actually walking,” Potts said. “He gave me a big hug and said, ‘I wouldn’t be walking without you.’ So many people need help.”
Potts said he would also like to see the perception surrounding amputees change.
“There’s no voice for amputees,” he said. “I think anyone who loses a limb is a hero. If you think about it, they’re fighting to regain their life in their own way and assimilate back into the community, which is really hard.”
Potts is hoping to spend time at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, talking with Wounded Warriors, and would like to talk with others, including Maryland athletes, about what he has gone through.
“I just want to share my story and if I can give anyone an inspiration, that’s all it takes,” he said. “We all face adversity and the lessons are similar. If I can help anyone change the view on amputation, it’s a great day for me. It’s going to be my world for the rest of my life.”