Many of the conversations that happen between Dr. Donna Millar Potts and her patients start with a question.
“I usually start off a visit with, ‘What do you think is wrong?’” Potts said. “And then, I listen. Ninety percent of what I do as a doctor is listen to others. And sometimes, all you can do is give someone a hug.”
It is that listening posture that has endeared Potts to her patients and those who work with her.
At 60 years old, she volunteers every week to work in AnMed Health’s HIV clinic and she serves the patients at the Anderson Free Clinic at least twice a month.
Barb Baptista, the director of the Anderson Free Clinic, said that Potts served as medical director for the Anderson Free Clinic from 2010 until 2013. She has been a volunteer there for seven years.
“Donna is here in some capacity every Tuesday,” Baptista said. “The common thing that she brings is that she cares for people in all sorts of ways. Her love for others is in the small things that she does, like the tone she uses. She never approaches people as if she’s preaching. And she is always listening.”
That is why Baptista nominated Potts for AnMed Health’s Extraordinary Women in Healthcare awards. And Potts received the hospital system’s top honor for women in healthcare -- the Virginia Gilmer Extraordinary Woman in Healthcare Community Service Award.
The award is named after the hospital’s founder, Virginia Gilmer.
One of Potts’ biggest fans, her husband, Dr. David Potts, said that her patients love her so that they often will bring her gifts at Christmas.
He said that last year, she received three, beautifully wrapped bars of soap and a pair of socks.
“I’ve seen patients follow her all over the Upstate,” her husband said. “They need some love and attention and Donna gives them that. She knows the art of caring for others.”
Potts does not brag on herself, at all, however.
In fact, for her, the good things -- any characteristic that someone else may attribute to her -- she points back to her family.
She was raised in Montgomery, Ala.
Her father was a farm boy turned electrician and her mother worked at a drug store in their hometown. Her father was from Alabama and her mother was from Amsterdam, Netherlands. She said they met while her father, a veteran in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Germany during the Korean War.
When Potts talks of strong character, she points to him.
She said that as a child, he refused to eat a ham biscuit that his teacher said was the lunch that his family had packed for him for his day at school.
“He was sure it wasn’t his because they usually only had meat on Sundays,” Potts said. “He went all day without lunch because he thought that the biscuit wasn’t his.”
Her desire to become the first in her family to go to college, she said, came in part from her parents. They always insisted on buying the latest popular “Childcraft” books and the World Book Encyclopedia for her and her three siblings.
“Sometimes we didn’t have enough for all the bills, but each month, we got those books,” Potts said. It was encouraged for us to go to college. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything out of the ordinary until I went to medical school.” She said her desire to go medical school and become a doctor came from her maternal grandfather. She watched him die from cancer when she was 13 years old.
“At the time, I thought that they didn’t listen to his symptoms,” she said. “He kept asking for testing because he had this continuing cough. They said, ‘Of course, you have a cough. You smoke. They never tested him to see if he had cancer.”
“I decided then that I wanted to help people like my grandfather,” she added. “And in my family, being a doctor was no more ridiculous than being a ballerina or an astronaut.”
Potts graduated from the University of Alabama with her bachelor’s degree and then went on to become one of 35 women, who were in a class of 165, who attended the university’s medical school.
In 1980, she moved to Greenville to complete her residency. At 29 years old, she finished her training and has been a physician ever since. She joined the faculty at the Greenville Hospital System, where she taught other up-and-coming doctors. She was the Director of Community Medicine at the Greenville Memorial Hospital, and is a physician in the Infectious Disease Department at AnMed Health.
She has worked at supporting and establishing clinics for uninsured and under-insured patients across the Upstate her entire career.
“You get used to working in an environment with limited resources,” Potts said.
Her husband also works with patients who have infectious diseases like HIV. Together, they have mentored children at local schools, she helped start the charity, We Stand for Kids, which served children whose parents were incarcerated, and she volunteered as a guardian ad litem, advocating for children in foster care, for 11 years.
They adopted two young boys, when they were 5 years old and 9 years old. Now, those boys are 18 years old and 22 years old. So together, the Potts have raised seven children and have five grandchildren.
And their work is not done.
Donna said she and her husband want to continue to work with Anderson’s Free Clinic, and maybe look at trying something different: working in an overseas medical mission trip.
“We have talked about doing medical missionary work,” Potts said. “We have already been to Haiti and we have talked about going to Africa. We want to keep doing the HIV work. It is a shame not to use that skill if you’ve got it and the need is there. Besides, we love taking care of people.”