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MAGAZINE / Jan-Feb 2008 / The Lee Woodruff  Interview

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The Lee Woodruff Interview

A Partner in Care

The Lee Woodruff Interview

Lee Woodruff is a freelance writer and public relations executive. She and her husband, Bob Woodruff, are the authors of In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, The New York Times best-selling book about their family’s difficult journey during Bob’s critical injury in Iraq while anchoring a broadcast for ABC News.
Lee and Bob have also established the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury to raise money to assist members of the military with cognitive rehabilitation and other care needs. Editor-in-Chief Gary Barg’s interview with Lee sheds a light on this dedicated care advocate

Gary Barg:
It has been a few years since Bob was injured in Iraq. How is he doing?

Lee Woodruff: Bob is doing amazing and his recovery is miraculous; but as miraculous as it is, it was also hard work, as anybody knows who is caregiving someone or going through any kind of rehabilitation or recovery.  It is day-to-day and some days are better than other days.

GB:  How are you doing?

LW:  I am doing really well, but I think that we all have our own form of post-traumatic stress disorder; especially when something happens instantly, like Bob’s injury. That changes your life and sort of upends your faith in the order of things in the universe.  There are moments like if he goes out for milk or something and he hasn’t come back in 20 minutes, my first thought is, What is wrong?  That is not the way I used to think.

GB:  Has it affected Bob's relationship with the kids, too?

LW:  My kids are much more empathetic and wonderful human beings in the wake of this. Children who go through this kind of tragedy understand how much more precious life is; but my daughter, who is very close to him, gets worried as well.  She has been indelibly marked by the whole experience. Children who are in this situation learn lessons earlier than, as a parent, one would like them to.

GB:  Have you found that there can be a kind of joy and connectivity to come out of a caregiving experience like this?

LW:  Absolutely; and laughter, too. Laughter was a huge part of our ability to heal.  Bob and I share a really similar sense of humor, a healthy sense of humor. We drew on that heavily to keep him cheered and in good spirits because that was a very clear tie to his recovery and how much will he had to keep pushing forward, especially in the months when he was in extreme pain.

GB:  How did humor get you through those early days right after Bob was injured?

LW:  We laughed.  We had lots of jokes and we called him “half head.”  He would struggle for words and at certain times we would laugh about some of those words. Towels were “cuddles” and thumbs were “dunkles” and he just had a whole host of things when he couldn’t come up with the word in the early days. He would make the word up himself and we just learned to laugh about that.  It was cute and it was funny and it was endearing and we all learned that if we laughed, it just sort of felt better. We used humor in lots of different ways as families do, because I think all families have their own brands of humor, and it was very cathartic. 

GB:  When we host our Fearless Caregiver conferences, we talk about humor. There might be 10 or 15 really funny stories that only caregivers will understand, like your story about Bob with “cuddles” and some things my grandfather would say to my mom.

LW:  Right, and it is interesting, too. Bob was roasted the other night down in Washington for the annual spina bifida event and everybody was so afraid to roast him. Here is a guy with a brain injury who was doing a service to his country in Iraq and how are we going to roast this guy?  Everybody sort of touched him with kid gloves until I got up there and said, “Okay, you guys are weak.” I just started telling some of the funny stories and the things that we called him, the jokes that we had, and you could see people at first be a little nervous like, Should I laugh at this?  Of course, you should laugh and, ultimately, you get the whole room howling. But it is kind of a journey for people who haven’t necessarily been there to understand that you have to keep laughing through life.  You have to keep laughing through the absolute worst of life because, otherwise, what will you have to spur you on to keep surviving? 

GB:  You recently held your first major fundraiser, The Standup for Heroes Gala.  How did that go?

LW:  We raised $2.5 million and then another almost $5 million in an online auction. It was a chance to show the human cost of the war, because you don’t run into the wounded on the streets of New York the way you might in Washington, for example.  I think it made everybody feel pride in their country and a sense of rallying around the wounded and wanting to support them; and people got a chance to talk to them.  It was just an all-around fabulous night.

GB:  You, Bob and your family really put a spotlight on the subject of brain injury. Because of your dedication, I am seeing more and more information, support and conversation about people with traumatic brain injury. 

LW:  I think Bob was willing to put a face on brain injury and say, “This is what it looks like. These guys are not getting the attention that I got as an anchor for World News and something needs to be done about that. We need to be giving them all of our resources and all of our concern.” That was a wonderful position to be in.  Not everybody would have handled it that way and I can look at him and say that was my husband’s decision and how proud I am of that.

GB:  What one piece of advice would you like to leave other family caregivers with?

LW:  One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a very dear friend who told me, “You are going to be overwhelmed with people asking you what they can do for you in the beginning. Initially, there is nothing they can do; but what you need to do is ask them to subscribe to the chit system. You say to them when they ask, “There is nothing at this moment that you can do, but can I ask you for one favor sometime in the future?” It helps you when you need that call made to the insurance person, but you just can’t get to it.  It makes the people who are trying to help feel special because you actually have remembered and you have called and asked for something; and they are doing something worthy and worthwhile, and everybody is a winner. It may be as small as asking somebody to pick up a pizza, or something larger like, “Can you spend the night with my kids because I need to be at the hospital?” Maybe it is the end, where it all becomes crazy and all you want to do is just sit by that person. You need more of your needs taken care of at that point.  I would also say, “Try never to despair.” I know that everybody has moments and walls or the black day that you feel is the end of the world. The truth is that each day is a new day and you can look for the little moments.

Sometimes, I would just think about a great big latte with a big foamy top on it. That one little thing might be enough to put me in a good mood for that day and give me something to look forward to. I think you need to take it in bite-sized chunks when the going gets tough.

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