To Iraq and Back
When Bob wasn't in front of the camera, he was at home with his wife, Lee, and their four children. Lee says they had a very happy home life. "I was incredibly proud of Bob and what he had achieved," she says. "We were the luckiest family in the world."
In early 2006, Bob was dispatched to the war zone in Iraq, where he was embedded with American soldiers. Little did he know, his life was about to take an explosive turn.
On the morning of January 29, 2006—just 26 days after starting his new job—Bob was reporting alongside cameraman Doug Vogt atop a tank, which was patrolling an area just north of Baghdad. Suddenly, a roadside bomb exploded and shrapnel went flying through the air toward the two men.
In Bob and Lee's new book, In an Instant, Bob describes the horrifying seconds after the explosion. "Hundreds of rocks shot upward with the force of bullets," he writes. "The white heat of the fire power ripped through the air like an apocalypse."
The powerful blast left Bob fighting for his life with a fractured skull, a displaced jawbone and severe shrapnel wounds to the head. Doug escaped with less serious injuries.
"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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
"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 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."
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.'"
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."
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.
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.