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Still making music

A year ago this week, scores of area musicians put on a massive benefit concert and auction at Ashland Historic Armory to support Mark DeGroft, a much-beloved performer and manager of Cripple Creek music store, after he was struck with sepsis and a rare clotting disease that resulted in amputation of both hands and both feet, as well as much facial surgery.

The affliction, called DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation), hit in September 2018, and DeGroft’s life hung in the balance during many trips to specialists here and at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, where they worked successfully to keep it from destroying his organs.

Though he is 70 and has Medicare, much cash was needed for treatments, and for he and his wife, Cindy, to hang on to their Talent house. The benefit netted $49,000, while a gofundme — still in operation — has raised $49,500.

The couple say they want to thank the community for the love and money that have enabled a range of seeming miracles: keeping their house, buying a wheelchair-accessible van, paying for $32,000 feet, a $5,000 silicone nose and adapting to custom 3-D printed hands that allow him now to cook pasta and — amazingly — play a slide steel banjo with a prosthetic pick, on his lap.

It’s like watching an impossible moment: After walking around the front yard, DeGroft, with no hands, sits there, a slight smile on his reconstructed face (including new synthetic nose), sliding a bar up and down the frets, plucking out a beautiful tune on the strings. It’s breathtaking, a lesson in hope, in possibility.

DeGroft’s arms were amputated several inches above the wrist. The new arrangement is a soft “cuff” that slides on and has various steel or plastic instruments to replace fingers. The custom plastic parts were made by Ian Davis, a local man who lost his fingers and learned to engineer and craft new ones.

He worked in concert with trauma surgeon Albert Chi of OHSU, who came to Oregon from Johns Hopkins University. Chi, a trauma survivor himself, delivers an inspiring TED-type talk on YouTube.

After all the diagnoses, no one knows the cause of the disease, says Cindy DeGroft, who is a surgical assistant.

Half the people with DIC commit suicide, he adds, but he never wanted that out.

DeGroft notes that in the initial attack of the disease, he turned totally purple and collapsed on the bathroom floor. “I saw the black face of death coming for me. Didn’t get me, though. Cindy came and picked me up.”

Cindy is candid that their tribe of friends, musicians and the medical team “saved Mark’s life and allowed us to keep our home.”

She adds, “The past year and a half has been scary as all get-out. It’s been heartbreaking to watch him go through this. He was delirious from the surgeries. There was a lot of advocating for us and asking for help” as they wound their way through the medical and insurance complexities.

“The debt load would have been crazy if not for Medicare. It really shows you why we need health care for all.”

Everyone got on board. Neighbors took care of cats. A daughter and niece took them in while upstate for treatments. Moda Health “was terrific.” The community poured forth 90 valuable items for the benefit auction, including a piano — and a prized 1970 Martin guitar from Pat O’Scannell, founding director of Musica Matrix.

They are back doing songs in music circles among friends and are finally able to joke about it a little, with Cindy noting Mark has become something of a “novelty act” in music circles.

“Our goal now is to keep up quality of life,” she says. “The fact he survived all this is inspiration to a lot of people and must mean he’s here for a reason. He was stripped down to bare bones and had to rebuild himself.

“People are moved by his stoicism. He never complained, well, just a few times. He reminds people of Gary Cooper, where you could see this spark of life in his eyes, like when he’s down to one bullet and the bandits keep on coming.”

Mark says sometimes he lays awake at night and plays all the old songs in his head, and “sometimes it gets pretty bad.” Recently, it was like old times, says Cindy, “a room full of old hippies, and they were singing ‘Lean on Me (When you’re not strong).’”

Mark says what he’s missed most is making music with his wife of 40 years — and now that’s gradually coming back.

“I’m still here,” he says. “Just missing a few parts.”

Their story and photos can be seen at www.markandcindydegroft.com/.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Andy Atkinson / ashland TidingsMark DeGroft plays the banjo at his Talent home.
Andy Atkinson / ashland TidingsMark DeGroft plays the banjo at his Talent home.