Keeper of the Plans

‘It’s a miracle that you’re alive.’ Jenny Wood talks life, loss and the love of a community

Jenny Wood shouldn’t be here right now.

By all accounts, there’s no way she should have survived a horrific car crash in downtown Wichita that killed both her mother and niece earlier this year.

But Wood is, and always has been, a fighter.

After months of rehabilitation, she is finally on the mend — bearing both physical scars and psychological wounds that would be enough to break most people.

Not Jenny.

Recently Jenny sat down with The Eagle to talk about life since May 5, the day when everything changed.

‘It’s a miracle that you’re alive’

Looking at Jenny now, it’s hard to see evidence of the crash that wreaked havoc on her body earlier this spring.

Jenny, 36, has plates in her face now (she sets off metal detectors, she says in her usual chipper way).

She walks throughout her Riverside house, plays with her dachshund, and talks on the phone with her closest friends like normal.

Her rapid recovery confounded doctors and nurses alike at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, where she spent weeks in the intensive-care unit.

It was a daily conversation with them — “It’s a miracle that you’re alive. It is a miracle. You shouldn’t even be walking. We just can’t believe it.”

Jenny was critically injured when a driver in a stolen SUV fleeing police ran a red light at Douglas and Broadway and crashed into the Toyota Camry she was a passenger in. The crash happened with such force that it pushed the Camry onto the sidewalk on Broadway.

It killed her mother, Maria, who was driving the car, and her 12-year-old niece Rosie McElroy, a student a Robinson Middle School.

Jenny’s list of injuries was “a long 38 things.”

Seven broken ribs.

A broken clavicle.

A broken pelvis on both sides.

Skull fractures all along her face.

Surgeons immediately had to remove her left eyeball and reconstruct her face before putting the eye back.

And her brain was swelling from the massive trauma.

Because of the way her skull fractured — in tiny little pieces — her brain had enough room to swell and bleed.

“That minor detail is the only reason why I survived,” she said.

A small but dedicated group of friends stayed by her side in the hospital for weeks, providing Facebook updates on her condition.

Those same friends washed the blood and the glass out of her hair in the hospital, she said.

“Every two hours, they had the same conversation with the doctor and the nurses, saying, ‘Well, we don’t know if she’s going to make it. Because of the brain swelling, we’re not sure,’” Jenny said.

Altogether, Wichitans raised more than $45,000 for her medical expenses through online fundraisers and various benefit concerts.

After a few days, Jenny did come to.

“The next thing I recall is waking up and seeing the hospital room, thinking I was in the wrong place, thinking there was a mistake,” she said.

“The only thing I remember is waking up at St. Francis, seeing my loved ones and thinking, ‘What’s the problem here? What’s going on? What happened?’”

The day before

The day before May 5, 2019, was beautiful.

It was 71 degrees.

The sun felt good on your skin.

It was the perfect kind of day to go roller skating, which is precisely what Jenny did that Saturday.

For her, May 5 isn’t any ordinary day.

Two years ago, on May 5, 2017, Jenny lost her father, David, to illness.

Though her father left “this breathing life,” as Jenny says, she felt his presence and energy even more so after that day.

“I was outside so much, I was writing so much, I was with the kids so much — I had this new surge of life, and I know that was my dad giving me that,” she said. “It almost felt like he was giving me life that he didn’t get to live.”

This year, May 5 fell on a Sunday.

The anniversary of her father’s death was to be marked by a joyous family occasion this year — as Jenny’s oldest niece, Cat McElroy, was set to walk across the stage at the graduation ceremony for East High’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program.

It was “a huge day for my family,” she said.

‘An ethical war’

Like so many kids who grow up in Wichita, Jenny left the city during college to pursue big-city dreams.

After about 2 1/2 years in the music theater program at Wichita State University, she left for a singing gig in Los Angeles and didn’t look back.

Soon her music took her to Nashville, where she said she “started to find my voice, started to play guitar and write my own songs.”

She was living the dream — off on her own, carving out a career in Music City.

Then she realized things weren’t going well for her family back in Wichita.

Her two nieces and one nephew were struggling, and her brother-in-law needed help raising the kids, Jenny said.

They needed a positive role model.

She could hear the yearning in their voices when she’d talk to them on the phone, she said.

But if Jenny returned to Wichita to be that for her family, it would have meant giving up her burgeoning Nashville career.

“I did not have a relationship with God like I do now, but I definitely started to say, ‘Why? Why? I want so badly to be able to sing and see if this could be a job for me. Why is this happening all the way back home?’ ... I’m just trying to play my guitar, travel and be a rock star,” she said. “It was an ethical war, and I had no idea how to start fighting it.”

Eventually, Jenny realized she couldn’t fight it.

She had to step up.

So Jenny moved back to Wichita around 2010 to be close to family.

And though she was “scared to death to inherit the responsibility of three kids,” it was music that made her realize she was called to be in Wichita.

“About three years into that routine of being with them often, helping them heal from all that they had experienced — seeing that and starting to play music with them, starting to sing with them,” their whole demeanor started to change, she said.

“Kids, when they are feeling something and it’s starting to be manifested creatively, their excitement — the way their eyes open up — they feel like they’re being heard. You can see them growing right in front of you.”

She now attributes that experience of helping her nieces and nephew grow into strong young adults as the inspiration for her career.

Life’s purpose

It turns out moving back to Wichita was not such a bad career move for Jenny, after all.

She began playing shows in many different band configurations around town, and quickly became known for her genuine on-stage presence.

She’s been able to live her dreams as a female rocker — and has opened for acts like Def Leppard and Gene Simmons at the Rocklahoma festival.

But now there’s something more important to her than being a rock star.

She wants to help young kids — like her nieces and nephew — who are being bullied, intimidated, or otherwise prevented from becoming their fullest selves. Through song, she’s been teaching them how to overcome.

She regularly presents at local schools and teaches songwriting workshops specifically for kids — and they love her for it. While she was in the hospital, her Facebook wall was filled with videos of school-aged kids playing guitars and singing songs.

“Being an independent female in the male-dominated rock music genre — that has taught me everything about bullying, intimidation and manipulation,” she said. “I’m taking that and applying it to young people and seeing it working, seeing it succeed.”

“I had no idea it was going to turn into what it has become — believing that coming back to Wichita, I could actually make a better living than I ever did in Nashville or the Los Angeles area.”

Overcoming the fears

Jenny doesn’t remember much of what happened on May 5, 2019 — other than “being so pumped to see Cat’s face when she’s walking down the aisle” at graduation, and getting in the back-left seat of the Camry to head to East High.

Multiple days later in the hospital, it was her niece, Cat, that told her what had happened to her mom and niece Rosie on the way to graduation.

It took about a month for reality to hit, she said.

“Not that I couldn’t comprehend it, but my heart wasn’t letting it sink in,” she said. “Until I got to (the rehabilitation hospital) and I was away from everyone, alone all day for a month, that I started to begin the processing.”

In the hospital, she didn’t dare try to sing.

She was too scared.

Had the crash ripped away the one activity that had given her purpose and joy, consolation and meaning for the better part of her life?

“Even when I was talking to the nurses when they would come in, I could hear my timbre and I was scared it wasn’t going to be the same,” she said.

Once she finally returned to the quiet of her Riverside home, she picked up a guitar and tried.

“I played and I sang and I could feel the vibrato, feel the sensation I remember feeling as a kid and feeling so moved by as a 7-year-old — that feeling that I want to have that as my life,” she said.

“As soon as I sang a song that meant the world to me — songs from church, ‘How Great Thou Art,’ these songs that were in my family and my mother raised me with — singing those songs I felt their presence, my niece’s presence. Feeling their presence as I was singing, as I was trying — being afraid, feeling that fear and walking into it with the presence of knowing that they were with me.”

So she kept strumming.

And strumming.

And strumming.

Jenny’s not shy about telling anyone these intimate details of her life.

That’s just the musician’s way — their personal life experiences are made public through their music, and that’s why people feel such an emotional connection with them.

Jenny says she’s starting to write music about her experiences these past few months.

It’s therapeutic for her, she said, and just maybe it will help someone else going through a similar situation.

“All of that feeling from the experience of losing a loved one came out musically, and it’s the best feeling — the biggest relief,” she said. “The weight gets lifted, and it just becomes a sound you can go back to, healingly, whenever you are thinking of them or missing them.”

Jenny is planning two “comeback” shows in the Wichita area in the next couple of months.

A show at Botanica will be her first public appearance since the crash, and she will be playing with her band, The Watchers. It will be a small, intimate show, she said.

Then, Jenny Wood and the Watchers will perform a large show at Belle Plaine’s Bartlett Arboretum at 4 p.m. Sept. 29.

She said she is looking forward to performing again and seeing the Wichitans who supported her so much these last few months.

“I know, as soon as I start doing that, it is what God wants me to do, and the growth is happening,” she said. “It’s making me stronger.”

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