Dace Potts steals the ball from his dad, Schaun, during a game of basketball in their driveway on Thursday. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
KINGSPORT — When Dace Potts got sick at school, his parents didn't think much of it. Little did they know that fateful day in April would eventually rob their son of the ability to walk.
They picked him up from school and kept him home the next day to be sure he was OK.
He returned to school on Wednesday, but complained of his throat hurting. A subsequent strep test came back negative.
The next day he complained of leg pain. By Saturday he was using a walker and by Sunday he was confined to a wheelchair, his legs so weak he could no longer walk.
It was a shock for a kid who the week before was playing soccer and basketball.
"It was a very scary moment," said Julie Potts, Dace's mother. "The hardest thing about the six weeks we were dealing with this was not knowing."
Julie and her husband Schaun, both teachers at Sevier Middle School, had no idea what was going on. They took Dace to different pediatricians, only to be told he would be better in a few days. But he didn't get better, only worse.
It was almost like Dace went back to being an infant. He needed to crawl to get around and needed extra attention for small tasks like using the bathroom or taking a bath. It was a scary time for the entire family.
It just so happened Dace's soccer coach was an orthopedic doctor and the worried parents called him. He told them things would get better by the weekend. When the weekend came, Dace was not better.
Eventually, the Potts were referred to a rheumatologist, but were told an appointment would not be available for a couple of months. Julie, however, was persistent and finally got an appointment.
When they saw the rheumatologist, they were told a road trip to a hospital would be necessary.
"Our rheumatologist said this could be two pages of things in a textbook," Schaun said. "I'm going to need to send you to either Vanderbilt or Duke, that was like, 'Oh. This could be life changing.' "
This was on a Thursday and their doctor asked the family to wait a day so he could work on the case and he would try to get them in with another doctor at one of the two hospitals. Dace's older sister had a basketball tournament that weekend. Dace was lethargic during the tournament and his parents decided to go ahead and drive to Duke University Hospital with no appointment.
Dace was checked into the hospital and a battery of tests was conducted to start ruling things out. He had various blood tests, EMGs and MRIs.
The family would spend four days in the hospital, hoping for an answer. Every day, Julie and Dace would go to a huge water fountain in Duke hospital and throw in pennies. Every time, Dace wished to walk again.
A diagnosis was reached and it was determined to be viral myositis. Myositis refers to any condition that leads to inflammation of the muscles. Viral myositis is when viruses or bacteria invade muscle tissue directly, or release substances that damage muscle fibers.
The family was released from Duke hospital on May 2, relieved to finally know what was afflicting their son. The next step would be extensive therapy, hoping Dace could regain his strength and ability to walk.
He had his first therapy the very next day, May 3, with Great Body Company in Kingsport. His parents, who are also coaches at Sevier, applied the coaching mentality to his therapy, going for one hour a day, five days a week. Some days, they would go to the Kingsport Aquatic Center and put in more work away from the therapists.
The Potts received great help along the way, specifically from Sarah Pietryszka, whom Julie referred to as "their angel." The family also credits the staff at Great Body Company and lots of prayer for the miracle that happened next in Dace's story.
While working in a hot tub on June 8, which was at the suggestion of Dace's sister, he stood for the first time on his own. The next day, he took a few steps on his own with a walker.
A feeling of elation rushed through his parents. It made them happier than when he took his first steps as a toddler.
The whole ordeal has changed the way Schaun looks at life.
"I'm 40 and I used to be stressed about my house, my yard, my deck, power washing and all that stuff," he said. "This has put everything in perspective, what's important in life, you know. So instead of power washing my deck and staining it, Dace and I take bike rides about everyday on the Green Belt to strengthen his legs."
Dace is still in therapy, going three days a week.
In June, the family was taken back to Duke for a basketball tournament. Dace wanted to go visit the room he stayed in and some of the medical staff. Before they left, he had one more trip to make.
He went back to that water fountain, the one where he wished to walk again, took a penny and tossed it in. His final wish?