THE BLOG

ABC Reporter Bob Woodruff's Incredible Recovery From Traumatic Brain Injury

10/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You have may have seen a few weeks ago the interview between former US presidential contender John Edwards and reporter Bob Woodruff. All the resulting media coverage centered on Edwards' declarations. However, there is something much more remarkable that surfaced at that interview: Bob Woodruff's spectacular recovery.

This is the same reporter who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury when a roadside bomb detonated next to his vehicle in January 29th 2006 as he was covering news developments in Iraq.

Today I am fortunate to interview Lee Woodruff, Bob's wife and pillar throughout his recovery. Lee and Bob co-wrote the fantastic book In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing.

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Lee, many thanks for your time. I was amazed reading your book, where you share your journey, and then watching Bob interview John Edwards, the best display I can imagine of his recovery. Can you please summarize for us what Bob -- and you -- went through since January 2006?

Lee Woodruff (LW): As you know, Bob suffered a life-threatening traumatic brain injury in Iraq. He was promptly taken under military care and underwent a series of surgeries for head injuries, with a joint Army & Air Force neurosurgical team in Iraq, in a US Army Medical Command hospital in Germany, and at Bethesda Naval Hospital, back here in the US.

During this time, spanning around four months, he spent 37 days in coma, and his skull had to be surgically rebuilt. The cognitive rehabilitation process started then, at a medical facility closer home.

AF: Can you please explain what kind of cognitive rehab Bob has gone though -- both in a formal way, with a therapist, and informally, on his own?

LW: The first thing I'd like to say is that rehab is a long process. Doctors told me that Bob, despite the severity of his injuries, had better chances to recover than other victims, because of the reserve of neurons and connections he had built thanks to an intellectually stimulating and diverse life, including living in China for several years and traveling to dozens of countries, having worked as a lawyer and as a journalist, and his overall curiosity and desire to learn. It seems that more and more research shows how people who are mentally active throughout their lives, either through their jobs, or doing puzzles, sudokus...are, of course up to a point, better prepared to deal with problems such as TBI.

Still, recovery is a long process. Bob had six months of structured cognitive therapy focused on speech and languages areas, because that was the part of his brain that had been most damaged. The therapist identified the main tasks for him to work on in a challenging, yet familiar way, usually asking Bob, for example, to read the New York Times, then try to remember what he had read, and write a short essay on his thoughts and impressions.

Since then he has, in a sense, used his work in the documentary To Iraq and Back and other projects at ABC as his informal, but very effective, way to keep improving. I am amazed to watch in real time how, even today, how he gets better and better. To give you an example of his motivation to recover: he recently took on Chinese lessons to see if working on that also helped him.

AF: In the book, Bob says that, if he had to say in one word what he was experiencing during much of the recovery, he would use the word "slower". His brain was slower at processing new information, at remembering words. What progress has he experienced?

LW: A lot. He is not exactly at the same level he was before the injury, but he is again an amazing reporter, father, and husband. And I see progress every month, so we have hope that he will continue getting better and better.

Sometimes Bob tells me he is not the person I married. And then, as I mention in the book, I laugh and reply "I am not either. I'm older, wiser and more wrinkled." I have learned to trust him. Especially in the beginning, it wasn't always easy to fully accept and follow his judgment, but I have seen how little by little he grew perfectly able to recreate his role as a husband and as a father, and to recreate our respective roles in the family. It has been wonderful to see that happen. It has been a miracle.

AF: Bob has been a very fortunate survivor of traumatic brain injury. There are over a million cases every year of TBI. Many of them are military-related (a recent RAND study estimates that over 300,000 US service members have sustained TBI during assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan), but also happen in civilian life, mainly due to traffic accidents or sports concussions. What do we know today about how to prevent and treat TBI?

LW: The Iraq War is literally re-writing the book, the way researchers and doctors see and tackle the problem. Most of the progress is happening in the military, but I hope that transfers into benefits for civilians, too. From a preventive point of view, the military has been stepping up to improve the body armor of soldiers, and I can now see why wearing seat belts as we drive and helmets as we bike can make a big difference.

From the recovery point of view, there is much more optimism and hope today than only a few years ago about how many TBI patients can improve, if given the opportunity to, through a supportive environment and physical and cognitive therapy. The military has recognized the problem of the so-called "Walking Wounded", and is devoting significant resources to analyzing best options and treating them. As we chatted earlier, the Army recently announced that from now on soldiers will get a cognitive screening before they get deployed to the field, so that in case there are problems that screening can serve as a good baseline to compare functions to.

But the improvement in the area is only starting. We need to see much progress.

AF: Can you now tell us more about the Bob Woodruff Foundation for Traumatic Brain Injury? What are your main priorities?

LW: Bob and I are devoting much time to raising awareness of the problem and the need to find and implement good solutions for cognitive care. Our foundation supports community, grass-roots approaches to helping TBI survivors and their families. Given the huge scale of the problem among the military, and the fact that Bob survived thanks to the excellent care he received from the military along the way, we are focusing first on helping military victims.

For example, we recently funded four scholarships for TBI-related research, and also bought 300 mattresses for a small non-profit that helps patients and their spouses rebuild their lives once they have to leave Army bases -- many of whom cannot afford to move all their belongings, including beds and mattresses, out of the bases.

And there are many more things to do. For example, while many more soldiers are getting better care, that is not always the case with National Guard reservists who, despite having a dedicated branch of the armed forces oversee their progress, are often at more at risk of living with undetected TBI since they don't have to report at bases once they are back.

It is also not clear that the military (as well as insurance companies) are always willing to pay for the long-term costs of care.

AF: What are some specific ways people can support the work of your foundation?

LW: They can visit our new website for the Bob Woodruff Foundation , to learn about the problems and to donate funds, no matter how big or small.

But probably the most important thing every one can do is to recognize the sacrifices the soldiers have made, and find active ways to look for them and help them in their own communities. Soldiers and their families often have grown in a culture of self-reliance, of not asking for help, so here we all need to take the initiative to figure out how we can help. Ask yourself, how can I help the TBI survivors in my neighborhood? Perhaps by giving them a job, or offering them help or training, so they can secure one? How can I help their spouses and families maintain healthy and happy environments? Perhaps by offering them free movie tickets? A massage?

AF: Lee, many thanks for those suggestions. Is there something else you would like to add, that you would know everyone to be aware of?

LW: I'd say never give up. We have seen how Bob has recovered, which I think is a miracle. Let's simply try our best to help everyone out there.