Simsbury, Connecticut, UNITED STATES — Within days of waking from his 36-day coma, ABC anchor Bob Woodruff found himself at a loss for words – literally.
Woodruff, the victim of a roadside bomb while on assignment for ABC in Iraq, said that out of all his ailments, he finds his memory loss the most frustrating.
“I don’t really have any physical problems. I’m just trying to get the words back again,” Woodruff said recently at an educational forum at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Conn.
According to Woodruff, saying Viagra instead of Verizon or breast explosions instead of breast implants would not be so bad for the average person, but as a journalist known for his strong and accurate vocabulary, it was a nightmare.
Woodruff compared his impairment to being like a pianist with broken fingers. According to Woodruff, life was like “a game of charades.”
Woodruff and his wife, Lee, spoke to students and visitors at the private school this month, describing the tragic accident that united their family.
Woodruff and his cameraman were reporting from a military tank near Taji, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded next to them.
Both Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, were knocked unconscious by the air blast from the IED. Hundreds of rocks penetrated the skin on the left side of Woodruff’s upper body, narrowly missing his eye and a major artery in his neck.
After the bomb’s explosion, “gunfire broke out,” Woodruff said, and the soldiers there “fought back against the guys who were shooting at (them).”
Pilots in the area were ordered not to respond to the fighting, according to Woodruff. But one pilot, who Woodruff did not identify by name, turned down the radio and ignored the order.
That pilot, Woodruff said, came to his aid and flew him to a nearby military hospital to receive the critical care he needed.
As a result of the blast, Woodruff experienced a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which often causes the brain to swell uncontrollably after knocking against the sides of the skull. Because TBI is not an uncommon occurrence in war situations, military doctors knew exactly how to help – by sawing off a portion of Woodruff’s skull to allow for the swelling, which he claims saved his life.
The injuries were so severe that he went into a coma. After Woodruff reached a military hospital in Germany, his wife Lee flew to the hospital to see him, and his four children flew out to visit their father on the weekends.
“His brain was swollen out of his head, his eye was swollen shut, and his ear looked like cauliflower,” his wife said.
Before his injury, when Woodruff was preparing to leave for long-term assignments, he and his daughter Cathryn, now 13, would play the kissing game to see who “could kiss the longest without running out of air,” Woodruff explained.
Two weeks after the blast, while Woodruff was still in his coma, Catherine played the kissing game with her father, and a tear fell from his eye. That was the first time he responded to his family.
After Woodruff awakened from his coma, he realized he could no longer read.
His twin daughters, Claire and Nora, now six, had made him a get-well card that hung on the wall of his recovery room and Woodruff couldn’t tell what it said. He initially dismissed it as another side effect of his TBI since the memory side of his brain was what had taken the brunt of the explosion.
But a doctor later concluded that his poor vision was caused by age, not the TBI, and Woodruff was fitted for reading glasses.
In the year and a half since the incident, Woodruff has relearned much of the English language.
“When I first woke up, I could not understand anything on the TV or radio, but it started to come back,” he said. He also regained his ability to write and his vision has improved, but there is still some blindness in the upper right portions of his eyes.
Lee Woodruff said the family decided they “weren’t going to rush to judgment about Bob’s condition. We didn’t know where he was going to end up.”
“We were unlucky and yet I think we’re the luckiest family in the world,” she said. “We’ve had a miraculous outcome by the standards of every doctor we’ve visited.”
“Without a doubt, this to me, [is] a real miracle,” Bob Woodruff added.
Woodruff said he suffers a few days of depression every month because of the frustration of rebuilding his life and relearning everything.
“We just decided to call it his period,” his wife joked.
She too experienced a period of anger and frustration after her husband’s injury. In her mind ran a “film loop where I saw him in the tank over and over again – it was like a self-inflicted torture device,” Lee Woodruff said.
“I even to this day feel a little bit of guilt for what I did to my family. I feel terrible about what they went through,” Bob Woodruff said.
Even so, he said he would continue to travel to foreign countries as a journalist if given the chance.
But Woodruff said, “My wife said I can’t go to Iraq anymore.”
“What a surprise, right?” his wife responded sarcastically.
Woodruff is often asked whether or not it’s a good idea to go to a war-torn country and report.
“To me, somebody has to go over there and report,” said Lee Woodruff. “I think that we cannot make decisions about what’s going on in the war … or how we should vote without having the media there.”
About his initial treatment immediately following the attack, Woodruff said, “The medical treatment, whether you’re military or non-military – is really more remarkable now than it has been in any other war.”
The problem lies, he said, within the long-term care of injured military men and women, especially in veterans hospitals.
Lee Woodruff said that records are kept on paper in some Veterans Administration hospitals and electronically in others, so records of TBIs do not follow some soldiers.
“The VA system is broken,” she said, and that is why soldiers with TBI are sometimes mistakenly redeployed.
Lee Woodruff separated her feelings on the war from those on the soldiers fighting it.
“It’s not a war I ever believed in, to be honest,” she said, adding that she normally does not admit that out loud, but she still supports the troops. “Whether you’re for the war or against the war, we all agree that we need to do more for the American military.”
The forum was well received at the school.
“It’s wonderful to see someone who went through an experience like theirs and took it upon themselves to help others,” said Tom Schneider, director of finance and operations at Ethel Walker.
The Woodruffs now work to help injured military men and women. Both husband and wife have organized the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury, or the BWFF. The money goes to military members who have suffered traumatic brain injuries to help them pay for rehabilitation and treatment.
“They deserve not only the highest level of respect, but also the highest level of treatment once they get back home,” Bob Woodruff said.
The couple have also collaborated on the book, “In An Instant,” which tells the story of the aftermath of his injury and how the family coped. “Ours is a story of a marriage without it being whitewashed because even the best of marriages aren’t perfect,” Lee Woodruff said.
The original draft of the book contained more than 900 pages, Bob Woodruff said, and after the editing was done and the number of pages condensed, it seemed like he was causing Lee grief “every other day.”
The Woodruffs loving banter and the ability to finish each other’s sentences kept the audience laughing.
“I thought it was excellent,” said Sylvia Newton, who came to see the Woodruffs speak. “They both had a tremendous sense of humor. There was nothing wrong with his speech at all.”
Thanks to immediate expert care and a loving support system, Bob Woodruff has recovered and returned to his career. With their foundation, the Woodruffs plan to help other TBI victims do the same.
Rachel Glogowski and Beth Pond are Reporters for Youth Journalism International.