woodruff5It is one of the most compelling stories to come out of the Iraq war, one that millions of television viewers around the world watched unfold on January 29, 2006. On that day, ABC journalist Bob Woodruff was reporting from Baghdad when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded less than 20 yards from the tank in which he was traveling. The explosion left Woodruff with life-threatening injuries and marked the beginning of an experience his wife, Lee, refers to as “the vortex.”

“Bob was halfway out of the tank when the IED went off,” recalls Lee. “It was a 155-millimeter shell, which is pretty big for these types of homemade bombs. The blast knocked Bob out and shook his brain against his skull. Then the shrapnel hit all on the left side of his face, head and neck. The severity of the blast cracked his skull and even blew his helmet off. He was awake for a few minutes and talking and then completely unconscious. By the time he got to the Baghdad emergency hospital, they really didn’t think he would live, and written next to his chart was the word ‘expected.’I would find out about that later on, but luckily, it wasn’t a triage situation at that time or he would have been put to the back of the bus.”

A MIRACULOUS RECOVERY

In the first, or “golden,” hour of treatment, Lee says that doctors removed 16 centimeters of Bob’s skull, explaining that this procedure is what ultimately saved her husband’s life and future brain function. After the surgery, Lee watched Bob slip into a coma, and for five weeks, he was totally unresponsive to any stimulus, prompting his family to begin exploring long-term care options.

“When I was at Johns Hopkins looking at nursing facilities, he just woke up, in away that you’re really not supposed to wake up,”Lee says.“With brain injuries, you’re supposed to begin to come out of it gradually and show signs, but Bob just literally woke up, asked for me and wanted to know what was happening.”

woodruff6Although Bob’s emergence from the coma was nothing short of miraculous, the Woodruffs still had a long journey ahead of them. As Bob continued to struggle with pain that resulted from his injuries, Lee assumed the role of his caregiver and quickly discovered that she had a lot to learn and few sources of information.

“For the next four months, before he had surgery to put in a skull liner, Bob was in a lot of pain,” Lee says. “Anytime he did anything, even when he sneezed, it hurt. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have half of your skull missing, and his scapula had been shattered as well. He was in an incredible amount of pain. I knew enough to ask for a pain doctor, but that was it. Once the plastic prosthetic skull piece went on, a lot of Bob’s pain diminished almost immediately, but it wasn’t easy up to that point, and there’s nothing worse than seeing a loved one in pain.”

TRYING TO FIND ANSWERS

Lee says that she felt “very much at sea” when it came to knowing which questions to ask doctors and what to do to help Bob find relief from his pain. Even with the resources afforded by Bob’s very visible professional role, it was a challenge to find answers.

“I didn’t get any information [about pain management] from the hospital,” she explains. “I’m not sure I even knew pain specialists existed. I kind of got the feeling that pain was very much one of those reas where doctors minimize it, but I never forgot what my OB/GYN said when my first child was born. She said, ‘Take the epidural! We have ways to handle pain now, and no one should be in pain for a medical situation.’ That’s why I am a big believer in Caregiver Cornerstones; there is no reason that people shouldn’t be given this information. I wasn’t, and it made a big difference.”

woodruff22Caregiver Cornerstones is an information resource that provides support to individuals acting as caregivers, and Lee recently became a spokesperson for the program. Created by the National Family Caregivers Association and PurduePharma, Caregiver Cornerstones addresses many of the issues that Lee faced when caring for her husband.

“One of my biggest challenges was that I still had young children, and that was always first and foremost in my mind,” Lee recalls. “I had to figure out how to manage being a mom and caring for a love done, and I had to manage the information flow to them.

“I remember when Bob was flown from Iraq to Germany and then to Bethesda, and all the doctors and our family members were packed into the briefing room. It was like a press conference, and during this, one of the doctors slid a piece of paper to me. It was a consent form for all of the surgeries and treatments Bob needed, and had death listed as a possible complication. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! Being married to this man makes me 100 percent responsible for him.’ Of course, you think you know that when you take the vows, but in this type of situation, you understand that philosophy.

“It was work to keep up with the communication from Bob’s doctors, to make sure that I had all the information I needed and that decisions weren’t being made without my input, and to advocate for him,” continues Lee. “Trying to find time for myself was difficult, but I found that on the days I could just get outside of the hospital for a few minutes or grab a cup of coffee and not talk about Bob’s medical situation, I felt stronger. You have to find one little thing that you do for yourself each day, outside of the matrix of caring for that person.”

DECIDING TO GIVE BACK

As Bob continued to recuperate, both of the Woodruffs developed an intense desire to help others by sharing their experiences. In January 2008, they established the Bob Woodruff Foundation to “provide resources and support to service members, veterans and their families to successfully reintegrate into their communities so they maythrive physically, psychologically, socially and economically. ReMind.org is a movement of the Bob Woodruff Foundation that educates the public about the needs of injured service members, veterans and their families as they reintegrate into their communities and empowers people everywhere to take action.”

“You have two choices when something like this happens,” Lee says. “You can fold in your tent and heal privately, which is perfectly fine and acceptable. But our whole story had been ‘outed’ in such a public way, and when we were in the military hospital and saw some of these young families not getting the resources we did, we really wanted to do something to give back. So we started our foundation with the goal of raising money for grassroots efforts or simply for families not making it.”

woodruff44Through the foundation and Caregiver Cornerstones, Lee began to tell her story to others. She found that many people identified with her situation, and her commitment to caregiver advocacy grew.

“I became this voice of a caregiver, and if you had asked me five years ago which direction my life would take, I would have told you that you were crazy if you had suggested this,” says Lee. “But I developed an interest in caregivers, particularly with people in pain, and am happy and honored to be part of this program.”

The Caregiver Cornerstones program has four areas of interest for caregivers—learning about pain management, caring for a person with pain, caring for yourself and advocating for all people with pain. Lee says that she dealt with each of these areas during her time as Bob’s caregiver, and she wants to use her personal experiences to help others seeking the same kind of information.

LOOKING FORWARD WITH A LOOK BACK

With nine-year-old twins and a high-school junior at home and a freshman away in college, Lee says that the Woodruff household is “chaotic,” like those of many other families across the country. She and Bob coordinate their busy schedules with their children’s activities, assist others through their advocacy and philanthropic endeavors, and through it all try very hard to enjoy each day for the gift they feel it is.

“I always say that I wish I could’ve met myself now, when I was walking around in the intensive care unit,” says Lee. “I could’ve said, ‘Hey, it gets better!

This is the worst that it gets. You’re in living hell now, but it gets better.’”This spring, as the paperback version of her book Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress is released, Lee plans to coordinate her advocacy work, speaking engagements and work with the Woodruff Foundation and ReMind.org. It’s a busy schedule for the mom of four, but Lee explains that she is happy to be where she is and grateful for the opportunity to help others.

“We call the period after Bob’s injury ‘the vortex’because it was this black hole that everything got sucked into,” Lee continues.“When something like this happens, it humbles you, and you realize how very little control you have over everything.

“We no longer look too far into the future,” concludes Lee. “My simple answer about how we changed after this experience is ‘there are a lot more dishes in the sink.’” {PP}

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