During tragedy, fathers are family's pillars of support

The Baltimore Sun

Racing from a job in Rockville, Richard Potachney Jr., made it to the hospital as the painkillers started taking effect on his 2-year-old son, Payton.

"Daddy," the weeping boy said, reaching out for his father and grabbing one of his fingers.

He fell asleep, but kept a tight grip on his father's finger. Not that Potachney was about to go anywhere - if there's one thing he's learned about being a father, he said, it's that "you have to be there."

Now more than ever: Payton was severely burned last weekend after sliding down playground equipment that someone had coated with an industrial-strength drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Children's Center operated on him yesterday, removing skin from the front of his legs to graft onto the burned areas on the back of his legs.

"I cried. I could only hold his hand," Potachney said. "It broke my heart."

In the hospital lobby yesterday, Potachney seems both hyper and exhausted; sometimes the words tumble out, other times he just stares at his hands. In his dazed state, he can be talking about Payton's surgery, even as he's noticing how nice the lobby's windows and glass doors are (he works as a glazier).

He and Payton's mother, Carol Duschl, split up shortly after Payton's birth, and she now lives with her boyfriend, John Leschefsky, and their 11-month- old son, also named John, in the Middle River home of Leschefsky's mother and stepfather.

As Duschl remains by the boy's bedside, Potachney and Leschefsky come downstairs. They're handling the brunt of the media requests for interviews, with Duschl too upset to talk. It should be awkward - like a bad episode of a show that would be called Two Dads and a Baby - but they say they get along fine.

"We're both here," Potachney said as he cocks his head toward Leschefsky, slouched in another chair in the lobby. They both sport goatees, although Potachney is blond and stocky and Leschefsky is dark-haired and rangy.

They both marvel at how Payton has handled his excruciating ordeal.

"He's been so good, and far more cooperative than a 2-year-old should be," Potachney said.

"He says 'thank you' to the doctors," Leschefsky said.

The whole family has pitched in - Leschefsky's mother and sister are upstairs with Duschl; Duschl's mother is taking care of her younger son.

Baltimore County police think some kids in the neighborhood broke into a storage area of Victory Villa Elementary School and took two bottles of an industrial drain cleaner that they then poured on the playground equipment behind the school.

On their walk Saturday morning, Payton and Leschefsky's mother headed for that playground, just down the street from their home. The little boy made a beeline for the slide. He screamed as he slid down the acid-coated slide and then into a puddle on the ground where more of the drain cleaner had collected.

Just like that, what might have been a mindless prank turned horrifying.

Payton suffered third-degree burns, the worst kind, and faces weeks of hospitalization and perhaps more surgery, the two dads said. They're worried that Payton might not regain full use of his legs because of the severity of the damage.

"A bunch of kids, being stupid," Leschefsky said.

Being 22 - Potachney is 23 - neither is far removed from when they were kids themselves.

"I've stolen a pumpkin off a porch," Potachney recalled.

"Maybe something like a broken school window," Leschefsky said of his own boyhood mischief. "But nothing like this."

Leschefsky grew up in the neighborhood, one of several in Middle River built to house workers at the old Glenn L. Martin airplane factory, a history reflected in the names of the streets - there's an Altimeter, a Manifold and a Right Rudder.

"It's fine," Leschefsky, a construction worker, said of the neighborhood.

"I was looking to moving into it myself," Potachney, who lives in Harford County, said. "But I just can't think of anything else right now.

"This is my only son, and my world," he said. "They done stopped my world."

Although he's been too focused on Payton to find out much about the police investigation, he hopes he's helping by speaking to the media.

"I want somebody caught," he said. "I'm begging for anybody who knows anything to contact us - the best way is through the hospital."


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