A force beyond his control cost him control of something he loved, and Jeff Wood thought part of his life was over. But he's too intense to let that happen.
By MICHAEL CANNING
Published February 15, 2004
TAMPA - Jeff Wood was hanging out in his living room the day he discovered that maybe his life had not been turned entirely upside down.
Listening to Complex Machine, a song by his old band, Joe Popp, he drummed along on a rubber practice pad. His timing wasn't great, but it wasn't bad, either.
"It went okay," he recalled.
The next sign came a few weeks later, as he power-walked around his mother's Valrico neighborhood, dumbbells in hand and the Who's Live at Leeds pouring from his headphones. As he heard Keith Moon pounding the skins, Wood tore the air with his dumbbells, laying down silent grooves.
Wood had a real drum kit and an audience the night he knew things really were going to be okay. Surrounded by friends and admirers in the local music scene, Wood tore off his shirt, just like he used to do, and jumped behind the kit to join his old band.
The performance was a little loose, but Wood kept up. "Okay," he told himself. "I'm doing okay."
One of his bandmates, however, thought his friend was doing way beyond okay.
"I saw him in (intensive care), where it looked like he was about to die," said Joe Popp bassist Martin Rice.
It had been 10 weeks since Wood, 38, awoke from surgery to remove an apple-size tumor from his brain. During the operation, a series of small strokes had left him unable to control his left arm.
Initially, physical therapy only discouraged Wood. "It's over," he once told a therapist, holding back tears. "Just mark the limb as dead."
Jeff Wood, one of the Tampa Bay area's best-known drummers, had never been one to give up.
"Come on, Wood. Just fight through it," was what he'd tell himself as he squeezed out his thousandth situp. As he hammered his way through another frenzied performance.
And when the spells started: numbness in his left arm and leg, shortness of breath, headaches. He would put his head down and wait them out, whether at work in the shipping and receiving room of Saks Fifth Avenue in Tampa or at a jam session. Then he'd go home, take four or five Advils and do exercises. A thousand situps, no stopping. A hundred crunches. Stretching. Bench and leg presses. Dumbbell curls and calf raises. Half an hour on a stationary bike.
He had the same intensity in the rehearsal room. He would drive his band through its concert set two or three times in a practice session and still want more.
With his washboard abs and near-encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, Wood stood out among his peers as a model of obsessive self-improvement and self-reliance.
As a drummer, he was known as the premier power hitter on the scene.
"He's really good at the rock thing," Rice, the Joe Popp bassist, said. "He's very strong, and he's very steady."
The spells started about 18 months to two years ago. Wood's not sure exactly when. Eventually they grew in frequency and intensity. His fiancee, Vicki Yado, urged him to go to a doctor.
But he didn't have insurance. Although he could have been covered through Saks, he thought he was too fit to need medical care. So he kept gutting out the spells.
On June 10, 2003, he leaned over on a shelf at work and buried his head in his arms, fighting the pain in his head. He collapsed onto the concrete floor. His eyes rolled back. He immediately tried to stand up. He fell again, went into a convulsion and gave himself a black eye. When he woke up, he was in an ambulance.
At St. Joseph's Hospital, doctors discovered a tumor on the right side of Wood's brain. It was benign, but it showed signs of spreading to the left side.
When Wood awoke after surgery, he couldn't control his left hand. He could barely lift his left arm and leg. The left side of his face drooped, and his speech was somewhat slurred. Doctors suspected he suffered a stroke during surgery, Wood said.
"That kind of person"
After nine days in the hospital, Wood lived for 31/2 months with his mother to recover. During that time, he slowly realized he might be able to resume his place behind the drum kit. He also realized he faced a mountain of medical debt.
Word of his situation spread quickly in the tight-knit music scene. The first benefit concert was organized by Greg Reinel, Wood's bandmate in the rock duo Nutrajet, and held July 5 in Orlando. It raised $3,000, Wood said.
Meanwhile, Rice, along with his girlfriend and music scene mainstay Natty Moss-Bond, were organizing "Jeff Woodstock." The Aug. 29 concert assembled nine bands at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg and raised $9,000.
The featured band of the night was reunited Joe Popp, one of the area's most popular bands in the early '90s. The band's namesake flew in from his home in New York City, Rice played bass, and sound engineer and session drummer Mark Prator kept the beat for most of the set. Then Wood stepped in, to the amazement of his bandmates and the crowd.
Wood gave the proceeds of the concerts to his surgeon, Dr. Steven Tresser.
"It floored me," said Tresser, who says he rarely sees payment for emergency room calls, because most of those patients don't have insurance.
That wasn't the only thing that distinguished Wood as a patient. When Tresser delivered the news that he had a brain tumor, he said, Wood did not hesitate. "Okay, let's go get it," he told the surgeon. Wood's attitude "took me aback at first," Tresser said, "until I realized he's just that kind of person."
Patient and doctor clicked. They traded CDs. Tresser even took his wife to the Jeff Woodstock show.
"He was a real pleasure to take care of," Tresser said.
The new goal
On a recent cold night in an east Tampa storage facility, Wood sat at the drums in the practice room he rents. He worked on a basic 16th note fill, a pattern that eluded him at the benefit concert. Sometimes he got it.
These days, after putting in full days at Saks, he'll practice for about an hour before frustration overcomes him. "I'm still forcing it," Wood said.
Beyond the physical and emotional therapy the drumming gives him, he has another goal. He recently joined the St. Petersburg-based Moonsnakes, led by former Deloris Telescope member Ricky Wilcox.
Wood played a 50-minute set with the band Jan. 10 at the Emerald Bar in St. Petersburg. It wasn't the old Wood, but he got through it.
He's still a member of Nutrajet, though the band is on hiatus. He's back at his apartment in Seminole Heights, doing roughly half his old exercise routine. He's looking forward to marrying Vicki and maybe learning a trade at a technical school.
"I'd like to be the drummer I was," he said in a relaxed moment in his cluttered rehearsal space. "I'm waiting to jump off the bass drum," recalling a stunt he used to pull during shows. "Nobody knows when it's going to come.