Rush Award Winner Makes Strides Against Disability

JoAnnPottsBy Kevin McKeough

As a child stricken with polio, JoAnn Potts discovered what it meant to have a disability, and how much it meant to have help to overcome it.

Potts did overcome her disability and, inspired by her personal experience, dedicated herself to helping others by working in health care. For nearly four decades, Potts has worked for the Rush Blood Center’s transfusion services, where she’s currently the quality assurance coordinator.

In recognition of her determination and her dedication, Potts received this year’s Eugene J-M.A. Thonar, PhD, Award in October. Named for a Rush professor of biochemistry and orthopedic surgery, the award is given annually to a Rush employee, faculty member, student or volunteer whose efforts further Rush’s commitment to accessibility and to providing professional and educational opportunities to people with disabilities.

A native of Jackson, Miss., Potts was stricken with polio when she was 2 years old, during an epidemic that swept the country in the 1950s, shortly before a vaccine eradicated the paralyzing viral disease almost entirely. She initially needed crutches and a leg brace to walk, but following three corrective surgeries she regained the ability to walk on her own by age 9.

“Every time the doctors would say I needed to go back to surgery, I would cry. It was scary being in the hospital as a child,” Potts says. “All of that made up my mind to prove that I’m not different. It gave me a strong drive to go forward and prove to myself that I can do what anyone else can do.”

Taking Care of Others

Potts credits her doctors and nurses, her pastors, the Rev. and Mrs. Ira Jefferson, social workers, family and friends for helping her prevail over her disability. Her gratitude for the care she received and compassion for fellow patients led her to a career in health care.

“I saw a lot of suffering in the hospital along the way, and I had a desire to give back and be part of healing those who were sick and helping them get well,” Potts explains. She considered being a nurse but was drawn to medical technology. “Working with samples and being under the microscope, the problem solving, figuring out a design methodology, all of that intrigued me,” she says.

Potts graduated from Rush University’s medical technology program in 1973 and immediately went to work in the blood center that September. She worked her way up from bench technologist to supervisor to quality assurance coordinator. In the latter role, which she’s held since 1992, she oversees quality control testing to make sure that the more than 40,000 units of blood products Rush patients receive each year are safe and effective.

Potts also fulfills her mission to help others through her many volunteer activities. She has organized Thanksgiving food giveaways in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, visits members of her church when they are in the hospital and acts as a United Way representative to Rush, obtaining donations for the annual United Way campaign. “I feel I have to help take care of others,” she says.

Potts still deals with the lingering effects of her childhood polio. She occasionally walks with a limp and underwent hip replacement surgery in 2009. These difficulties have not deterred her from performing her important role. “She has not allowed her mobility limitations to interfere with reviewing patient charts on the nursing units and performing other tasks required to complete the quality assurance documentation she is now responsible for,” says blood center manager Ann Viernes, who nominated Potts for the Thonar Award.

“You can’t let a disability get you down. You have to be stronger than that and make your dreams come true and not give in to disability,” Potts says. “There has to be a drive. I had that, and I still do.”

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