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Lee Woodruff: the Bob Woodruff Foundation, and You, can help Traumatic Brain Injury survivors

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 In an Instant - Bob and Lee Woodruffbomb det­o­nat­ed next to his vehi­cle in Jan­u­ary 29th 2006 as he was cov­er­ing news devel­op­ments in Iraq.

Today we are 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: 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: 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 4 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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

They can vis­it our new web­site, Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion (http://remind.org/), to learn about the prob­lems and to donate funds, no mat­ter how big or small. We are also hold­ing a fundrais­ing event in NYC in Novem­ber to raise aware­ness.

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?

Lee, many thanks for those sug­ges­tions. I do have friends at a local Vet­er­an Affairs hos­pi­tal, and will fol­low-up on those great ideas. I hope our read­ers can also think of ways they can help (and exer­cise their brains along the way). Is there some­thing else you would like to add, that you would know every­one to be aware of?

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.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion:
In an Instant - Bob and Lee Woodruff

- Book: In an Instant: A Family’s Jour­ney of Love and Heal­ing
— Foun­da­tion: Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion.

Relat­ed inter­views:

- Build Your Cog­ni­tive Reserve — Dr. Yaakov Stern

- Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg on Cog­ni­tive Train­ing

- Cog­ni­tive Sim­u­la­tions: Inter­view with Prof. Daniel Gopher

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16 Responses

  1. Leigh Elliott says:

    thanks for your book. It was fantastic.I’m a brain injury sur­vivor. I had 2 strokes on the same week­end and end­ed up with a brain injury from it. I got a chuck­le when you were describ­ing the speech problem.same thing hap­pened to me.I do go to a sup­port group in Atlanta.
    sin­cere­ly,
    Leigh Elliott

  2. Leigh, thank you for your com­ment. We wish you a good and con­tin­ued improve­ment!

  3. Francine Stein says:

    Please e-mail address of Foun­da­tio n so that I can mail a con­tri­bu­tion. Thanky­ou

  4. Hel­lo Francine, I haven’t seen their address online, so I guess they pre­fer you make the dona­tion using their online sys­tem. Or you can con­tact their cus­tomer sup­port to ask if they accept alter­na­tives (phone, mail).

    Thank you for your inter­est in sup­port­ing their great work!

  5. Kathy Sutherland says:

    Our local VFW Post #4760 Men’s Aux­il­iary group would like to donate to this very wor­thy cause. We would like to send a check and can’t find a mail­ing address. Could you please pro­vide? Thank you- Sin­cer­ly,
    Pres­i­dent
    Bill Suther­land

  6. Tessa Venell says:

    My neu­rol­o­gist, Doug Katz at Brain­tree Rehab Hos­pi­tal, recent­ly gave me a copy of In An Instant, and I’m enjoy­ing it; I’m find­ing par­al­lels to my own recov­ery from a dif­fuse axon­al injury sus­tained in a car acci­dent in August 2006.
    I recent­ly returned from shoot­ing a film in Bei­jing about the emerg­ing envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in Chi­na, but as I’m pro­duc­ing this film, I’m think­ing about the next project.
    It has been rec­om­mend­ed to me that I write a book sim­i­lar to In An Instant, to ben­e­fit oth­ers in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. The stig­ma needs to be tak­en away from brain injury cas­es in order to improve recov­ery rates.

  7. Bill, I have for­ward­ed your note to the Woodruff Foun­da­tion. Thank you very much.

    Tes­sa, glad to hear about your recov­ery and cre­ative reha­bil­i­ta­tion process. I couldn’t agree more that stig­ma itself does not do any good, we need to raise the lev­el of aware­ness to encour­age recov­ery process­es. Thank you for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence.

  8. Address:

    Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion
    PO Box 955
    Bris­tow, VA 20136

  9. Bill & Kathy Sutherland says:

    Hi Alvaro,
    Thank you so much for respond­ing. We did even­tu­al­ly find an address and our Men’s Aux­il­iary from the VFW have already sent a check. We hope it helps.
    Mer­ry Christ­mas!
    Bill and Kathy Suther­land
    thank you

  10. Do you have an edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram geared to the pub­lic in gen­er­al — chil­dren in school in par­tic­u­lar that will help in explain­ing brain injury and the impact on soci­ety — how to under­stand? how to avoid? how to deal with?

    I am look­ing at putting togeth­er an edu­ca­tion effort for the state of Mon­tana at the pub­lic and pri­vate school facil­i­ties to edu­cate chil­dren now so as to ensure when they become adults, not only will they have valu­able per­son­al health infor­ma­tion for them­selves and oth­ers, but won’t have to go beg­ging to the leg­is­la­ture every year for a pit­tance of fund­ing. Edu­ca­tion at an ear­ly age will help to improve this sit­u­a­tion.

    Thank you.
    Dorothea Sams (moth­er of a TBI indi­vid­ual)
    406/449‑5108

  11. Carl A. Rudd says:

    I am a sur­vivor of brain injury.
    It’s nice to see some­one work as hard as you at your recov­ery, while help­ing oth­ers.
    Carl R.

  12. Tessa Venell says:

    Alvaro, I’m so hap­py to have come across this again. I am now con­sid­er­ing writ­ing a book about my brain injury recov­ery. It has been adamant­ly sug­gest­ed by many col­leagues, I have an edi­tor and a fun­der who could be inter­est­ed in involve­ment in this project. In a very ide­al­is­tic way, I think this kind of project, like the Woodruff book, can help to improve recov­ery process­es for patients. I have been sit­ting on the project now for a while, and I could be swayed either way. Alvaro, do you have any thoughts?

  13. Dorothea: the CDC offers many resources, see http://www.cdc.gov/TraumaticInjury/

    Tes­sa: well, Bob’s expe­ri­ence cer­tain­ly sug­gests that the process of film­ing a doc­u­men­tary and writ­ing a book has been an inte­gral com­po­nent of his ongo­ing recov­ery, so I’d encour­age you to share your expe­ri­ence aswell!

  14. Skember says:

    Many thanks. The ideas you have pre­sent­ed have clar­i­fied many aspects of trau­mat­ic injury I’ve been mus­ing over for some time as a non med­ical per­son with a great inter­est in mem­o­ry

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