She felt the first blow as a crowbar struck her in the back of her skull. She didn’t feel the second blow. In that instant, something incomprehensible had happened. Cindy-Lou Wood didn’t expect it, no one expected it. It was a senseless, violent act.
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
SUMMERFIELD — She did everything right — at least as right as she could make it. When Cindy-Lou Wood lost her job a few years ago, she expected nothing from anyone but herself. She fell back on her own resources as a bookkeeper and became her own boss — an independent contractor for companies that appreciated her work ethic and for H&R Block during the peak times of the year. In between the peaks, she continued using her own resources, working for small companies and even tending bar in a small tavern to earn a few extra bucks to make ends meet.
In the process, she built up a small savings account — a rainy day fund for emergencies. It was something to rely on for unexpected expenses; perhaps a car breakdown or, perhaps, to pay for what comes after the dreaded call in the middle of the night.
As an independent contractor, she had no medical benefits, nor could she afford the $600 per month needed for health insurance. Yet Cindy-Lou did not take her health for granted. Knowing that she had no resources to tackle health problems, she chose to remain healthy. She worked out and she focused on nutrition. At 41-years-old, she was the very picture of a healthy young woman, but she didn’t judge her own book by its cover.
“I scheduled a doctor’s visit every year for a birthday present to myself,” Wood said. “I had them run blood tests and all of the female tests. I paid cash for it.”
She was an attractive and healthy woman with everything to live for. She had four children, but was most worried about one. Her 24-year-old son is a U.S. Army Sergeant in Iraq and had recently been injured in combat.
South County has been her home since 1998. When the tax season ended she left Florida to work in a small town in Tennessee and, primarily, to see her first grandchild. Her concerns about her son in Iraq went with her, but there seemed little else to worry about in this peaceful, rural part of Tennessee.
On May 7, 2010, Cindy-Lou Wood woke up and ran for five miles. She remembers the morning with crystal clarity. Within hours, her life changed forever.
She was working as a bookkeeper for some local businesses and, for the few days prior, she was earning extra money working as a bartender and waitress in a small town tavern.
“I got ready for work — it was my fourth day — I’m a bookkeeper,” Wood said. “I was also a waitress at night. I work all the time. I had done some tax research that morning after I worked out. I was asked if I could work at the bar that night. I distinctly remember that morning.”
She felt no reason to fear anything working in that tavern. She knew almost everyone in town. Her 18-year-old daughter Hannah was there, having a bite to eat after her team won a local softball game.
“There was a crowd of people,” Wood said. “A couple of people came into the bar that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t realize that one person had a weapon. I ran over to get the door open because people started running for the door. I was suddenly worried about my daughter.”
She felt the first blow as a crowbar struck her in the back of her skull. She didn’t feel the second blow. In that instant, something incomprehensible had happened. Wood didn’t expect it, no one expected it. It was a senseless, violent act.
“It turns out the woman who hit me was someone I knew from 15 or 20 years ago,” Wood said. “I have no idea why she hit me or why she was even there. I felt the first hit but I didn’t feel the second one. She was six feet tall, 270 pounds. She started to fight with other people. It happened so fast, we’re not really sure why or what. She is a convicted methamphetamine user. She has now been charged with multiple aggravated crimes. She is a very violent person and a very large person.”
Wood suffered a traumatic brain injury. She has undergone three brain surgeries to relieve swelling and clotting. Today she still has blood on her brain. For now, she can only wait. Wait to see if the blood is absorbed by her body or will require another surgery to remove it. Wait to see if she regains her memory. Wait to see if she regains her balance and the brain functions that allowed her to excel as a bookkeeper. Wait to see if she can ever again run five miles just because it is good for her. Wait to see if she can regain some semblance of her life because, for now, all of that has changed.
“I’m not allowed to do the things that I was doing,” Wood said. “I can see the changes in my body. I don’t have balance. Sometimes my head hurts for days. Sometimes my hearing…everything is really loud. It’s a strange injury. I ask all the questions. What vitamins should I take? When you say I can walk, does that mean across the yard or can I walk a mile? They can’t really say except that I need to sit down. For me, sitting down isn’t getting better. There’s nothing I can do to assist it, there’s only time. And they can’t tell me how much time.”
She is alive now due to her healthy physical condition before the attack.
“I felt I could have recovered from anything,” Wood said, referring to her pre-May 7 life. “The doctors told me that if I wasn’t in the shape I was in, Hannah would have been making funeral arrangements. I spent nine days in critical care and my heart rate was under 25. My heart rate went down to 17 and they stopped giving me pain medication. I can tell you that it would have been very easy at the time to just not fight anymore. I told the nurse to please not let me die. That lady told me, ‘Ms. Wood, I will not let you die. Not while I work here.’”
In surviving the attack, Wood decisively won the most important battle in her life. Yet the war rages on. Lacking insurance, the medical bills have piled up. Her only door to medical care is through the emergency room, something she resists. Even there, doctors want expensive tests such as CAT scans and MRIs to treat her — tests she cannot possibly afford. Just the cost of her prescription medication has consumed her savings and that of her family.
Over the summer, her mother, longtime area resident and Observer News contributing writer Penny Fletcher, brought her home to South County.
“She lost everything,” Fletcher said. “Her place, her car. She has nothing. She may never be able to pay all of the medical bills.”
With travel expenses and medical costs, Fletcher has also been financially stretched to the breaking point. But that is simply what families do in times of crisis. It is certainly what this family does.
“We’ve always been a very close family,” Wood said. “I’ve been divorced for 17 years and have never remarried. All I have are my kids, my family. They never dreamed it would be their mom because I’m the strong one. And now they are taking care of me. They have to pick me up and they make me dinner. That’s what families do. That’s why mom flew up so fast and why she opened her home up to me.”
Living without insurance was a gamble for Wood, along with millions of other Americans in a similar situation. It was a gamble she thought she understood. She tried to cover her bets, she tried to take care of herself. But she never expected the violent blows from a crowbar in a senseless attack. Few people would expect something like that.
“I’ve been contracting my own work for years,” she said. “I can’t pay the $600 per month for insurance. It’s too hard to get any work at all. In 2007, I had a corporate position but they eliminated my position in a merger. I haven’t had a cold in 10 years. I don’t get sick. I was gambling that if I kept up the work at being healthy that I wouldn’t get sick. It was working out really well.”
And then the unexpected happened. It was beyond unexpected, it was unimaginable.
“I have a Donald Trump comb-over,” she said with a slight smile, gently brushing away where her long hair covers her surgery scars. “What is happening frightens me, it embarrasses me. I can be in a grocery store talking to someone and then forget what I was talking about. People don’t always understand.”
Still early in recovery, she remains a strikingly attractive woman. The spark in her eyes may be dimmed somewhat but it is still visible. She has a long road ahead of her and there is also a haunted expression in her eyes. She never expected this.
“I know that my personality has changed, that I’m different,” she continued. “I can look in people’s eyes and tell that I’ve said something that is not what I would normally say. But I do think that I’ll get better. I do believe that I am strong. I don’t know how long it is going to take. The hard part is knowing how strong I was, it didn’t stop the damage.”
Her days are a roller coaster of ups and downs. At some point, she’ll likely be back at Tampa General Hospital facing another crisis. Facing more of the unexpected. All she wants is a semblance of her life again.
“What I want is a job,” she said. “I want to go to work. I want to stop asking people for help. That’s what I want. I want to be able to take care of myself and my children again. I want to be able to buy my own food and my own gas. Sometimes this makes me question my faith. I have no idea why this happened to me. I thank God I was strong enough to survive it. But what I really want is to be strong enough to go back to work and to be able to make it without being a burden to my family.”
Yet through the damage to her brain and her body, through the trauma of suffering indescribable pain, both physical and emotional, her appreciation for life has remained constant.
“I don’t think it should take someone being as injured as I was to appreciate everyday life,” she said. “I’m grateful that before my injury, I lived every single minute of my day. I have enjoyed my life to the fullest extent from 4:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night. I cried, smiled, worked and loved. I hope that everyone would do that. I always appreciated it. But I now realize that I may not always be so healthy. I realize that I may not be the strongest one in the room. The realization that I am weak is hurting me.”
Cindy-Lou Wood is anything but weak. She survived a brutal attack. Her concern remains more on her family than on herself. She has a very long road ahead of her, but she has set out to walk it. She worries about what this is doing to 18-year-old Hannah, still at home, and to her mother. She worries about JT, her recently injured son in Iraq.
“The last thing anyone in his unit wants is for him to worry about his family,” Wood said. “When JT calls, we both lie. He says, ‘how are you, Mom?’ I say, ‘I’m fine.’ I ask him, ‘How are you?’ and he says ‘I’m fine.’ and we’ll be doing that until he comes home in December. The main thing is that he comes home alive.”
No doubt for JT, the feeling is mutual. For him, the most important thing is to come home from Iraq to find his mother alive and healthy. Nothing else matters. The road Cindy-Lou is walking has room for her family and friends. Even the strong ones sometimes need a helping hand.