Life and healing in progress
Published: March 14, 2011
She’s a working mother of four who has moved many times during her 22-year marriage. Her husband’s career takes him away from home, often overseas and on short notice. Lee Woodruff is not a military wife, but she could claim a measure of sisterhood.
Her initiation came at a place no one chooses, the bedside of her injured husband at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Bob Woodruff, then an anchor for ABC News, suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a roadside bomb in 2006 while traveling with an Army unit in Iraq
“Bob was not a warrior, but he was a firm believer that as long as there were Americans putting their lives on the line for us, there needed to be journalists telling their story,” said Lee. “He was serving his country in a different way.”
The Woodruffs encountered military families with wounded loved ones at Landstuhl and later the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, where Bob also was treated.
“Bob had gotten so much attention as a news anchor,” she said “Yet this was happening to families around the country every day, and nobody was really aware of it.”
Lee recalled one of Bob’s doctors telling her, “You’re a writer, and you should write a book about this experience. Nobody out there in America knows that there are thousands of young men and women in these hospitals with these kinds of injuries.”
Since then, Lee has written two books. The first, “In An Instant,” co-written with Bob in 2007, chronicles their individual paths through his injury and the early days of his recovery.
Her second book, “Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress” (2009), grew out of the first. Both began during the five weeks her husband lay in a coma.
“Everybody at the hospital tells you just to talk, because that’s knitting his brain back together,” Lee said. “So I would just tell him the stories of our life.”
Telling became writing, as Lee tried to make sense of the tragedy through her craft.
Not all the stories fit in the first book, and Lee wanted to share the remainder. “Perfectly Imperfect” is a series of essays, stories that connect women as parents, sisters and daughters.
“They are two different books, but the connection is always there of the big bad thing, that moment in life when you hit the gritty part of the pavement that we’re probably all going to meet at some point in one form or another.”
The nitty-gritty events described in “Perfectly Imperfect” include miscarriage, aging parents, aging self, parenting teens, Bob’s injury, recovery and Lee’s experiences as a caregiver.
“There are a lot of caregivers who wonder why they feel so sad after the worst is over,” she said.
Right after the injury, Lee said she felt the need to be positive for her kids and push worst-case scenarios to the back of her mind.
“I had a lot of hope, especially when Bob woke up. The healing took place at such a rapid pace,” she said. “I’d walk into that hospital each day and see something new.”
But there’s no escaping the changes that TBI brings to a family.
“Reality can set in even a year or two later,” she said, bringing sadness and even depression. It’s all part of what Lee calls “the backlash of the dragon’s tail” for caregivers.
“You stay up for so long, and ultimately what goes up must come down. You don’t have the opportunity when you are in the middle of the fire to grieve or be angry or go through those normal cycles.”
She said faith, family and friends got her through dark days and gave her hope.
“I think I leaned on those three pillars in different measures at different times, depending on the day.”
Lee’s sense of humor, evident in her writing and conversation, was another source of strength.
“It lets the air out, in some ways, so that you can stay sane. When you are laughing from your diaphragm, it’s impossible to cry,” she said. “Laughter feels normal, and laughter connects people.”
Recovery from brain injury is a long haul, Lee cautioned.
“It’s certainly not a broken leg,” she said, though she describes Bob’s recovery as “miraculous.”
He has returned to work as a correspondent for ABC News and more importantly, to his family.
In 2008, the Woodruffs started the Bob Woodruff Foundation to raise awareness of hidden injuries like TBI, PTSD and combat-stress related issues. The foundation has raised $11 million, which it invests in education and awareness about TBI and reintegration programs for veterans with all kinds of injuries.
Lee said they wanted to find something positive in their experience to show their children that good things can come out of bad. The foundation aims to get Americans involved, engaged and aware of the price paid by military families.
“Bob felt a real affinity and still does with the military,” Lee said. “We both felt this was the right thing to do.
“Nobody comes back from a brain injury 100 percent. I’m so thrilled for where Bob is, but I still grieve the little things that other people may not see. That doesn’t minimize what families go through whose loved ones have more severe consequences,” she said.
“When he goes to visit soldiers in the hospital and sees people who are less well off than he is, he comes back profoundly quiet … It’s very sobering. We are so lucky, I’m not sure why.
“We are one couple in our own little corner trying to do something with our outcome that will hopefully make it better for everyone,” said Lee.
“That’s all we can do.”
Read more about Lee, her life and writing on her blog: leewoodruff.com