He grew up in a small town in the remote Hill Country of Texas, a place called Utopia.
When he got to Shelter Island, he felt he was home again. “It has the same kind of sublime beauty like Utopia,” Dr. Joshua Potter said. “But instead of cows, it has boats.”
The comparison is not far-fetched, since many descriptions of the Hill country note that it’s a place of small towns separated like islands by vast open spaces.
A doctor of osteopathic medicine and a resident at Southampton Hospital, he has just started seeing patients at the Medical Center, two days a week. By next month, when he completes his residency, he’s expected to have office hours five days a week at the Center.
Specializing in family medicine, Dr. Potter, 36, with his wife Katie and four children, bought a house on the Island last month after renting here for four years.
His first week at the office was slow, he said, echoing the response of many physicians who have seen patients reluctant to go anywhere, especially a doctor’s office, in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
But some Islanders made appointments, he said, to establish a relationship of care, get prescribed medicines, and one patient had a shoulder that was hurting. He was the person to see, since Dr. Potter also specializes in neuromusloskeletel medicine. In addition, while at the office, he had several telehealth consultations, which worked out well, he said.
Growing up in a town with no traffic lights, a few churches, two restaurants and the nearest hospital an hour’s drive away, he suddenly announced at age 12 that he was going to be a doctor.
This was as much a surprise to himself as everyone else, since he “was a bookish boy,” and definitely “not scientific.” Raised by a single mother, he had experience with illness, however, when hospitalized for pneumonia as a boy. And his younger brother Grant — who is also a physician —“had a lot of health problems when he was a baby.”
When a clinic opened in Utopia, Dr. Potter remembered the sense of relief and pride the townspeople felt at having a facility with a physician assistant in their community.
After graduating from high school in Utopia — one of 11 graduates — he went on to college intending to begin studies to become a physician, but said, “I fell in love with everything else,” including literature, and so he majored in English.
“But medicine was always in the back of my head,” even after he became a professor of English and composition.
A family event made his decision easier to change course back to his original ambition. After attending Grant’s “white coat ceremony,” — a celebration when a medical student begins to attend consultations and is give a doctor’s white coat — “Something clicked,” Dr. Potter said. “I thought: ‘This is who I want to be.’”
Even though his parents were divorced, he said, “My dad was always a big part of my life,” and his father’s example of public service as a deputy sheriff and firefighter inspired him to “make a difference in a community.”
Another life-altering moment came when he was a student at Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. Involved in student theatrical productions, he got a call that the actor cast as Jason in Euripides’ “Medea” had missed rehearsal and he was asked to step in. “Katie was playing Medea,” Dr. Potter said. “That was it,” he added. They knew they were meant for each other.
When he applied for his residency at Southampton Hospital, the couple with four children looked at real estate prices in a state of shock. One of his roommates at Harding said that the college was Cliff and Tish Clark’s alma mater and that they lived on Shelter Island. He suggested the Potters give them a call.
“Cliff said he’d help us find a rental on the Island,” Dr. Potter said. “Magic happened.” After renting for a few years on West Neck Road, in April they found a house to buy.
“My commute to the Medical Center is half a mile,” he said.
These days, his life is a bit easier than his wife’s, he said, even if he’s putting in 14-hour days at the hospital. “I can take a break and be by myself for a cup of coffee or talk to colleagues,” he said. “A mother with four kids can never take a break.”
Being a physician in the COVID era is demanding and often exhausting, but full of rewards, he said. And serving his Island neighbors is also fulfilling. “Seeing people, caring for them, helping them to have better lives, is worth everything,” Dr. Potter said.