The day Bob was struck by a roadside bomb, his wife and four children were 7,000 miles away, vacationing at Disney World.
"The phone rang, and I was sure that [it was my wake-up call]," she says. "[But] it was David Westin, the president of ABC News. He said, 'Lee, Bob's been wounded. We believe he's taken shrapnel to the brain.'"
At that moment, Lee says her world stopped. "Here I was in this beautiful room, and we were going to go to the Epcot Center that day," she says. "My brain just began shuffling everything. It was one of those truly out-of-body moments."
Before she could break the news to her children, Lee stepped outside to mentally prepare herself and call Bob's parents. When she went back inside, she found her eldest children, Mack and Cathryn, watching news coverage of their father's grave injuries.
"They looked at me, and Cathryn said, 'Mom, something happened to Daddy.' I thought, 'I'm not ready for this,'" she says. "[Then] I became this character I call 'The General.' ... My first thought was, 'I can't help Bob right now. I have to help these four little people.'"
Lee says she told her children that she believed in her heart that their father would be okay. Then, she says she went into the bathroom, turned on the water and started sobbing.
Back in Iraq, Bob was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where he underwent emergency brain surgery. Less than an hour after the bomb exploded, military doctors removed part of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain.
Lee says the surgeons' quick thinking saved Bob's life. Since so many soldiers suffer similar injuries, Lee says Iraq is the best place in the world to have this type of surgery.
After the first of many surgeries, a Medivac helicopter took Bob to a military hospital in Germany. Doctors had no idea when or if he would wake up from his coma.
Lee flew to Germany to be by her husband's side. When she saw Bob for the first time, she was stunned. "The left side of his face looked like a monster," she says. "It looked like a Frankenstein experiment. ... His brain was swollen out of his head like a rugby ball"
Despite a bleak prognosis, Lee says she remained optimistic. "I thought, 'I love you and you are a fighter. I know you're going to survive,'" she says.
With no way of knowing whether Bob would ever wake up from his coma, Lee stayed by his side after he was transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Then, her children arrived for their first visit.
Cathryn, who was 12 at the time, says she was scared when she walked in to see her father. "I wasn't sure what to expect," she says. "I didn't have much detail about what he was going to look like."
Lee took her daughter over to Bob's "good side," which wasn't as badly injured as the left side of his body. Cathryn says she started stroking her dad's hair, talking to him and kissing him. "I told him that we were going to play the kissing game," she says. "Whenever he would leave, we would play this game where we would see who could kiss the longest. Then, whoever gave up would lose."
Just then, Cathryn says she and her mom saw a tear roll down Bob's cheek. "I thought to myself, 'Bob's in there. He hears us,'" Lee says. "That was just such a major moment for me."
Bob and Lee's son Mack, who was 14 years old when his father was injured, had a harder time adjusting to the possibility that Bob might never fully recover.
"I was wondering if I was ever going to have the same dad as before," Mack says. "Looking back at the old pictures and then imagining my dad in that bed with all the IVs and half his head missing, [I wondered] if I was ever going to have all the same memories as before. ... It was really, really hard."
The uncertainty also took a toll on Lee, who tried to remain strong for Cathryn, Mack and her 5-year-old twins.
Before that fateful day in Iraq, Bob and Lee's life read like an incredible love story. They faced tough times, like the stillborn birth of their third child, but they faced them together. "He was my guy," Lee says. "We've supported each other through all these years."
As doctors prepared Bob for another big surgery, they warned Lee that he might never work in television again. But she wasn't concerned about his career. "I didn't care about Bob the anchor," she says. "This is my husband. This is my kids' dad."
Lee says she looked at the neurosurgeon and asked, "I just want to know, will he still love me?"
The question brought tears to the doctor's eyes. "[The doctor] grabbed my hand, and he said, 'Lee, I haven't had a patient yet who didn't wake up and love the people that they loved before,'" she says.
From that moment on, Lee says she kept that thought close to her heart and prayed for Bob to open his eyes.
After the surgery, as Bob lay in a coma, Lee was struggling with the prospect that her beloved husband might not get better anytime soon.
"I said to Bob's brother, David, 'I don't know how much longer I can do this. My kids are up in New York. I'm here away from them. Bob's not waking up. They're talking to me about a nursing home facility for him. What am I going to do?' I went to bed praying and saying, 'Bob, you've got to do this now. This is in your hands and God's hands right now,'" Lee says.
The next morning, at 4 a.m., Bob woke up and asked for Lee—whose name he remembered. When she finally arrived at his room at 7 a.m., Bob had a question for his wife. "I said, 'Honey, where have you been?"
"I wanted to ... say, 'What are you talking about? I've been living here for five weeks,'" Lee says. "But I just grabbed him. I mean, I couldn't believe it."
And that's not all he had to say after 36 days. Lee says the corpsman who was on watch with Bob overnight said, "He's been waking up and he's been speaking Chinese and, I think, French, and I think he's been doing a newscast!"
The months it would take for Bob's rehabilitation would prove to be difficult. In the first days, it still wasn't clear what Bob's limitations and hurdles would be.
The first functions to return were physical. After a week, Bob went from slow walking to jogging down the hospital hallway. Regaining his sharp mind would be much more of a challenge. Despite hours of work on his memory with flashcards, Bob struggled to describe simple items like paperclips and coffee.
"I couldn't even pronounce my brothers' names, my kids, any state in the country," Bob says. "I remembered everything. I remembered the sights of everything, but I just couldn't pronounce the words."
One particular incident shows just how difficult it has been for Bob to reconnect with his own brain's function
As he was sitting with his brother, Bob was struck by the need to write something down. "At one moment I said, 'I've got something to think about here. I'm just thinking about something right now.' And I had to write it down. I laid on the ground and I scripted all of this stuff about how I saw this factory and the snow was outside and everyone seemed happy and I thought I realized something in life was truthful here. I wrote it all down for about a half an hour. The next day we woke up and I said, 'Show me what I wrote last night.' And I saw this piece of paper. I couldn't recognize anything.
"When you realize what's going on with your brain during these kinds of issues, I mean, this is what's wrong with the brain. You think that maybe it's working. You don't really understand how bad it is. But it is."
Despite the hard work—and Bob says he's still not 100 percent recovered more than a year later—the Woodruff family believes Bob's life is an unbelievable blessing. "I think Bob's recovery is one of those unexplained miracles in life," Lee says. "I heard the doctors say to him, 'You should not be here, Mr. Woodruff. You should not be able to speak. You are defying every textbook out there.'"
As his recovery progressed, Bob began to reflect on the attack that nearly killed him. After he was hit and as he laid on the ground, bleeding, Bob says, "I saw my body floating below me while I was out. I was obviously asleep at this moment. And I could see whiteness around the area."
Bob says nearly dying has profoundly changed his outlook. "I think in some ways it's changed the way I look at death. I don't really feel afraid of it anymore. I mean, I felt it, what it looked like. What it was, who knows? I still don't know to this day. But I, without question, saw myself. ... I don't feel much fear about what it would feel like once it happens."
One person who directly understands what Lee has been through is one of her closest friends, Melanie Bloom. In 2003, Melanie's husband, television journalist David Bloom, was traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq. Suddenly, he collapsed from an embolism in his lung and died just weeks before his 40th birthday.
The Bloom and Woodruff families have been close friends for years, living parallel lives of international broadcast journalism. With David's death, the Woodruffs helped Melanie and her three daughters deal with their grief. Bob even filled in for his late friend at a father-daughter dance.
When the Woodruffs were struck with their own tragic news, Melanie rushed to be with her friend. "From the moment the call came that we lost David, Lee was by my side and didn't leave my side. So when I got the call about Bob, I just knew the only place on this planet I could be was right there by her side."
On the plane to Germany to see Bob, Melanie talked Lee through her immediate fears. "I said, 'Let's run through worst-case to best-case so you know you'll be okay no matter what,'" Melanie says. "I'm your worst-case scenario. The worst thing that can happen is we will lose Bob. [We lost David] and my girls are okay and I'm okay. And so worst case scenario? You're looking at it. Let's go from there."
You can read more about Melanie and Lee's friendship in the April 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
After spending so much time in rehabilitation hospitals, Bob met many
other people—especially veterans—who had also experienced serious brain
injuries. The journey to recovery is the subject of To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports, Bob's first original report since the accident.
Bob says he wanted to get back to reporting to give a voice to the injured soldiers who are coming home from war. "We, even as journalists, have not necessarily told enough stories about what's happened to those who have survived this war," he says.
With new high-tech armor and medical treatments, more soldiers are surviving injuries than ever before, Bob says. However, the danger of brain injuries has soared in Iraq due to the use of roadside bombs, he says. Some of these brain injuries are caused by soldiers' heads getting shaken violently back and forth, and many soldiers might not even know they're injured. "Some studies ... show up to 10 percent of those that have returned from the war actually have TBI, traumatic brain injury," Bob says.
"This war is rewriting the book on what they know about the brain. There are so many of these kinds of injuries," Lee says.
In addition to his
reporting, Bob and Lee have set up the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for traumatic
brain injuries to help soldiers.
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