The Road Back

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On January 29, 2006, Bob Woodruff was a freshly minted anchor for ABC’s World News Tonight. On assignment in Iraq, reporting on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, he was doing what he’d long dreamed of doing, what he had changed careers to do. He was doing work that mattered.

Then during his stand-up report from the hatch of a tank, it happened—a “horrific blast that rocked the tank,” as he recounts in his 2007 book In an Instant, co-authored with his wife, Lee. No one saw it coming.

In the bomb attack, Woodruff took a direct hit to the left side of his head and upper body. “The force of the blast was so strong that it crushed my skull bone over the left temporal side of my brain,” he described later. “Small shards of my cranium were driven into the outer surface of my brain, and the force was so great that my left eyeball was slightly displaced in the socket.”

It was bad. Traumatic. Life-threatening. And the next few years of Woodruff ’s life, starting with a 36-day medically induced coma, would form the template for a recovery that many still find miraculous. In his favor, he was only 44 and in excellent health; he was exceedingly bright and engaged, traits that doctors suspect helped the brain in its attempt to redirect itself. Third, he was surrounded by a loving family and support system, also thought to aid in recovery.

Up until then, Bob Woodruff had lived a charmed life. Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he was one of four boys—all handsome, all very close. He graduated from the private Cranbrook Kingswood School, then Colgate University, where he was a lacrosse star. He went on to receive his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, married a beautiful and intelligent woman, Lee McConaughy, and they had four children. It was the American Dream. And the dream became even more vivid when he decided to follow his heart, leaving the prestige and comfort of a promising legal career to become a foreign correspondent. That may have been the first inkling that Woodruff had a little something extra in the gumption department.

“I really believe what I sometimes tell young students: ‘Don’t pursue your career based on money or by your income. Just follow the things you just really love,’ ” he says. “ ‘You are going to find something you love and live in a neighborhood you can afford with people who are remarkably wonderful. You have to remember that what you do is probably 16, 17, 18 hours a day at some point—at least eight; if you don’t like that, it doesn’t really matter what the other life outside of it is.’ I felt the same way in terms of finding that something at age 30. We had just had our baby, and I had fallen out of love with the kind of legal practice I was doing. The Gulf War was in the news, and all I wanted to do was go over and report that story. It was incredibly important.”

Still, Woodruff says he never really thought about the dangers—until that day five years ago in Iraq. That sense of invincibility changed forever with his injury and the sheer will with which he fought back through years of rehabilitation. Despite his stunning recovery, Woodruff is still unsure what made him different, what made him recuperate as well as he has.

“There is no medical or scientific proof that if you are more dedicated or you work harder to recover, you will …. I don’t think we really will ever know what that does, if any kind of attitude you have [improves] recovery. It just feels that way. But it is frustrating when you combine recovery with loneliness— that is a funnel heading down.”

That “funnel heading down” and the Woodruffs’ exposure to a new shared world of military families struggling with their own loved ones’ recoveries led them to found the Bob Woodruff Family Foundation for Traumatic Brain Injury. The foundation aims to address what Woodruff calls the “visible injuries and those that are not so visible.”

Although he allows that field treatment and subsequent medical care at military institutions like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital is “remarkable,” there’s a point when soldiers have to go home. “There’s a big gap between what the government— the military—can do and what your family members can do. This big gap needs to be filled,” he says through community programs, helping the children of the wounded, education, depression and divorce counseling—not to mention addressing the issue of nearly 9,000 homeless vets. “In some ways, when they come back they are alone,” he says. “We support local charities and other programs that help them get back on their feet.”

He says the best advice he can give them is simple—to know they are going to get better. “One thing I do say to those who have been injured is that ‘You are going to get better. One year from now, you are going to look back and realize you are better than you were a year ago. Two years from now, you will realize you are a lot better than you were two years ago. I know there’s the [standard recovery line] that with these traumatic brain injuries, after two years you are pretty much done; you have now leveled out your recovery arch. But the recovery is still going on. You are not going to be exactly the way that you were before; a big part of you is actually going to be better than you were before. That way, you are kind of redirecting yourself in a different path. You have to keep faith in you. You have to keep that hope in you. And there’s no question that you will go through moments of depression when your life is changed so drastically.’ ”

Although he can’t swear that love is the answer, revelations in the Woodruffs’ book suggest it may have nudged a few turning points in his recovery. Lee recounts the fi rst visit their young daughter Cathryn had with her father when he was still comatose in the hospital. She began talking to him, kissed him on the cheek, and while they watched, a small tear rolled down his face. Lee began shouting; she called in the nurse. “It was, to this point, my only living proof that Bob was there,” she writes. “Cathryn and I had seen it, and it was enough for the two of us.”

Today, Woodruff says he is still getting better, well past that two-year benchmark. “It gets better every day,” he says. “I am back to reporting, even in breaking news situations. The stress on my family has gone down; I am back. I feel lucky to have recovered as much as I have but there are still a lot of issues. I still have difficulties remembering things that happened recently—and some things that happened long ago. Letters are still kind of twisted around when I try to think with some words. I have far fewer synonyms with which to make a point. Names are very difficult for me because there are no synonyms for a name.”

It has been a long road back, and Woodruff is closing in again on what he loves most: journalism and doing work he believes matters.

“One reason I got into journalism was Tiananmen Square; there was a massacre of Chinese in the square right there in the middle of the capital of China. I saw the fall of [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic and went to Afghanistan. I was at Aceh in Indonesia when the huge tsunami swept through and killed 7,000 people. Katrina was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in our country—I remember walking along right by a traffic light in the middle of New Orleans, USA, in a good neighborhood, and there was a body under the light on the fifth day after the storm had hit. And no one had come to get her. Moments like this are when you realize there are a lot of things in life you have not seen before. There are also a lot of beautiful stories I have done in incredibly beautiful spots. All of these in terms of journalism were really fulfilling stories to tell.”

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