Derek Wood never let ALS win, so his family didn’t either. His passion for life continues on through his wife and children.
Derek Wood began having problems with his right leg in Spring 2015, which led to a dozen or more visits with doctors and specialists around his home in Dallas, as well as across the country. Eventually, he and his family received life-changing news in 2016 when Derek, then 53, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over the next five years, Derek, his wife Tammy, and their blended family of four sons (Kenneth, Connor, Tyler, Jace) discovered and defined the true strength of their family bond.
ALS is an incurable disease that progressively robs a person’s ability to use their muscles, leaving them unable to move, speak or breathe. It is usually fatal in 2-5 years. For Derek, he never let ALS stop him from providing for and inspiring his family. Though he passed away on January 4, 2021, Derek’s energy will endure for many years to come.
Tammy, as well as Derek’s friends, describe Derek as a man with a warrior spirit because he was full of life, seized moments, built relationships and loved being both a family man and a business man. He was a force in the commercial real estate world, managing all corners of NorthPark Center, home to 235 businesses in Dallas. Despite battling ALS, Derek worked into his 20th year at the luxury mall before retiring in Fall 2020.
After receiving his ALS diagnosis, Derek knew his attitude would set the tone for his family and friends who were ready to support him.
“Derek was always so amazingly positive and optimistic throughout this journey,” said Tammy. “He exuded strength and he never let ALS win, so we didn’t either. We relied on each other, which on a daily basis meant me and my sons, Kenneth and Jace.”
“For me and other friends who have been to the Wood home, we saw first-hand what it really means to be soulmates,” said Mike Stein, who was Derek’s fraternity brother at the University of Southern California. “Tammy was an over-the-top wife and caregiver, they found an extreme amount of strength in their faith. Those four young men of theirs had to grow up quicker than they needed to, but they were very selfless, caring and loving.”
The family acknowledges the physical, mental and emotional strains ALS can create. They point to the initial foundation they had as a family, plus the ability to lean on each other and friends when they were faced with the cruel realities of the disease.
“I knew that Derek and I would get through this together,” explained Tammy. “We were devoted to each other through all of the highs and lows, and with ALS there are some really tough lows. I was more than willing to learn everything it took to sustain his life, and I would do it all over again. But what really moves me to tears, and they’re happy tears, is how devoted all four boys were to Derek.”
Connor Wood (23) and Tyler Wood (21) were just starting college when their dad was first diagnosed. Derek insisted that they continue their educational paths at the University of Arizona (Connor) and University of Arkansas (Tyler). They called and FaceTimed regularly, were part of family vacations, and returned home as often as possible during summer vacations, breaks and holidays.
Derek beamed when Connor received his diploma from Arizona in business management. He just started his first job in sales at Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP). Meanwhile, Tyler is poised to follow in his dad’s footsteps when he graduates from Arkansas this coming fall and will intern this summer with commercial real estate firm CBRE.
The day-to-day grind of caring for Derek was in the hands of Tammy and her sons Kenneth (31) and Jace (20), both of whom were needed more and more as ALS progressed. And don’t forget their four schnauzers, who were companions, stress relievers and comic relief in their own right.
“I couldn’t have taken care of Derek without Kenneth and Jace,” remarked Tammy. “And that’s also a credit to Derek’s ability to let us help him, which was difficult considering how independent he had always been. It was a very humbling experience for my husband to be completely healthy one moment and then reliant and dependent on others a short time later. From the moment Derek was diagnosed, I never left his side, whether it was at home, at work, at the hospital or in rehabilitation. I basically packed my bags and moved in with him everywhere he went.”
INSPIRING A BUSINESSMAN
Kenneth Patranella, Tammy’s oldest son, pursued a variety of careers in his youth – working as a river guide, ski and snowboard tech in Colorado, then later enrolling in culinary arts school and firefighter training. Interestingly enough, his penultimate job as a UPS driver prepared him for his current path. Kenneth found his calling one year ago thanks to Derek’s relentless passion for his family.
Kenneth initially needed some time to accept Derek. Kenneth recalls being protective of his mom he and didn’t appreciate Derek’s career advice at first.
“When Derek suggested I might want to find something more viable than rafting and skiing, I didn’t like it,” recalls an older, more mature Kenneth. “But I quickly realized he just wanted what was best for my mom, my brother and me, and his two sons.”
Kenneth moved from Colorado back to Dallas in 2015, saying he felt a “push” that he belonged there. Derek was diagnosed with ALS a few months later. After processing his step-father’s fate, Kenneth embraced his role as a caretaker, learning every nuance required for feeding, breathing, bathing and more.
“I took time off work to help my mom, who had basically become a full-time nurse, and Jace, who was in high school,” said Kenneth proudly. “Derek was family and that came first. I learned to read his body language and understand him even when he couldn’t communicate easily.”
When COVID-19 reached Texas early in 2020, Kenneth quit his UPS job to limit the risk of bringing the disease home. Though Derek was physically deteriorating, his mind never stopped working in overdrive. Two weeks after retiring Derek wanted more.
“Derek said ‘I need to be productive and laying here watching TV is not going to show my children the hard work ethic I have instilled in them,” said Tammy, remembering Derek’s message that day.
He pushed the family to open its own business, which he knew was necessary to provide financial security for years to come.
Derek, Tammy and Kenneth explored owning a franchise – maybe a smoothie shop or a yoga studio – that was Tammy’s first inclination. Derek was adamant the business needed to be something recession resilient. The trio went through a separate interview process to capitalize on what strengths would match what franchises.
Kenneth visited a trade show in Houston, called Derek at home and told him Smash My Trash Dallas was their ticket.
“It was incredibly special that he trusted me to make that decision for our family,” said Kenneth. “Our relationship grew with ALS because we were committed to each other. He got hit with ALS but it didn’t stop us. It actually ignited everything. We grew closer and worked every day together.”
The business – a mobile compaction service – fit the team perfectly. Derek brought his strength in building a business up from the ground floor and had connections in the construction industry, Tammy had a lifetime of experience in sales and management, and Kenneth had developed operations skills like scheduling, routing and the all-important ability to maneuver a large commercial truck.
“Let’s be clear, the big red smash truck sold us, it’s like a big Tonka truck, that saves clients money and also helps the environment,” said Tammy with a smile.
During a family vacation in Florida, Derek and Kenneth never left the hotel, instead seeking out construction projects in their territories to build their client base. The company has been a success and they expect to be profitable in their first year, which is a credit to Derek sharing his business acumen with Tammy (owner), Kenneth (operations manager) and Jace (office manager).
“Derek just had a killer work ethic,” said Kenneth. “But the best thing I learned from him is the importance of building relationships. It means everything. Since he passed away it has been unreal to hear the stories and the impact that he had on other people and it’s all a credit to how he treated them.”
BREAKING THE SHELL
You can count Jace Foss among the long list of people who share terrific stories about their relationship with Derek. As a 12-year-old, Jace had some mild skepticism towards his step-father, but that quickly changed.
“Derek proved to be a terrific father figure by how he treated me as one of his own,” recalled Jace. “He showed me he cared by helping me break out of my shell, my comfort zone. He helped me get into playing football and wrestling, and he was the first person to teach me to ride a bike and to drive. Now, I like trying new things and I’m better at talking to people. Without him I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
A year ago, Jace was a freshman at nearby University of North Texas and intended to major in history. Today, Jace has changed his path based on his experience caring for Derek. He recently enrolled in a masseuse program, which he plans to follow with training in muscle activation therapy, and then pursue physical therapy.
“Jace is meant to help and heal people – he’s so gentle, caring and thoughtful,” said Tammy. “Derek was so thankful for all that he did for the entire family. He was awesome – right next to me all the time to measure medicines, clean Derek’s breathing and feeding tubes, and even help bathe him. Jace would pick up tips from the therapists and then use them to help me when I was physically worn down. The nurses used to tell me they had never seen a teenager so eager and willing to contribute.”
There was never any question that Jace would do everything he could to care for Derek, even when it meant days with minimal rest or even sleeping on a hospital room floor after an emergency room visit.
“No matter how bad it got Derek never gave up, so that inspired me to keep fighting for him,” said Jace. “It was family and we did what had to be done. Even his last spoken words were ‘I’m not giving up.”
As noted by every member of the Wood family, ALS is a disease that tests an individual’s and a family’s resilience at every turn. They took great pride in working for one another, yet point out the importance that caretakers find some time for self-care as well.
“I’ll never regret what I did to care for Derek but it took a big toll on me and on everyone else,” admitted Jace. “He meant so much to me so it was really difficult seeing him degrade from the active person he was. It was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. I talked to Kenneth and my mom, but also my friends, who were really huge for me keeping it together. I’ve had trouble sleeping since he died. I really do recommend support groups and therapy for others in this situation because it is so hard.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Throughout Derek’s journey with ALS, he and Tammy felt a calling to help others with the disease. For every event that was held in their honor, whether it was with neighbors, childhood friends in Hawaii, NorthPark Center colleagues or fraternity brothers from USC, the Woods set aside funds to help find a cure. The Woods believe that ALS is not an incurable disease, but an underfunded one.
The Derek Wood ALS Innovation Fund was started at Michigan Medicine to support basic science research in ALS, the development of new ALS therapies, and the clinical trials needed to test new therapies for ALS.
“Hopefully through what we’re doing, what Dr. Eva Feldman is doing at Michigan Medicine, and how friends are helping our cause, we can help other people,” said Derek and Tammy in a 2018 video. “We know that we’re here for a greater good. It’s not just wondering why have I been dealt this hand. It’s who else can I help during this journey and that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
by Matt Trevor, ALS Center of Excellence