ABC newsman Bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee, are working to help others in the wake of his miraculous recovery Last updated March 28, 2007 4:14 p.m. PT
Bob and Lee Woodruff know people’s expectations and have delighted in smashing those stereotypes with their revealing memoir and their cross-country appearances to promote it.
Bob and Lee Woodruff promoting their best-selling memoir, “In an Instant,” inspired by Bob’s wounding in Iraq.
“People expect,” Lee Woodruff jokes with her usual sarcasm, “the blond bimbo and the celebrity TV guy.”
Bob Woodruff winces, then smiles. This is the way things have always been between them since their first date in 1986, humor such a signal part of their romance and love. And now it has returned full force — the kidding, the wisecracks, the repartee — undiminished by the ordeal that plunged Bob to “the knife’s edge” of death and then back again against huge odds.
The Woodruffs’ great relief and gratitude is as palpable in this Seattle hotel room as the circulating air. Lee lounges on the king-size bed, while Bob sits in a chair, stretching his lanky legs, shoeless. This couple exudes such utter ease in the spotlight that some of their clothes lie across the bed, their suitcases sit open and no interviewer’s question causes them pause.
But then the Woodruffs already have faced many ultimate questions for spouses. This seeming golden couple has been tested with many moves to distant cities and countries, financial stresses, miscarriages, long periods apart, a baby who was stillborn, Third World living conditions in China, twins born with the help of a surrogate mother, a daughter who turned out to be hearing-impaired, the embolism death in Iraq of one of their closest friends (NBC’s David Bloom) and then Bob’s wounding in Iraq on Jan. 26, 2006.
The newly named co-anchor of ABC-TV’s “World News Tonight” had only been in that position for 56 days when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off as he and his crew were riding in an Iraqi Army armored personnel carrier near Taji. The artillery shell, packed with rocks, caused grievous wounds to Woodruff (as well as cameraman Doug Vogt, who also survived).
More than 100 rocks lodged in Woodruff’s head and neck, including a huge stone just a hairbreadth from his carotid artery, and only the swift actions of American military surgeons in Iraq prevented Woodruff from dying on his fifth reporting tour there since the war began. There followed 36 days in a coma at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C., Lee and other family members at his bedside, days and nights of uncertain vigil, talking loudly to Bob, touching him, playing his favorite music and home movies, all in hopes that something was getting through somewhere.
Then, on the morning of March 6, 2006, came what now seem like immortal words to Lee: She walked into the hospital room, was startled to see Bob sitting up in bed with a smile on his face and heard him say, “Hey, Sweetie, where have you been?”
Bob, 45, remembers that moment a year later: “I’d been up for three hours before she came in at 7 a.m. I’d been talking to the nurse, but I didn’t know how long I had been asleep.”
“He was giddy,” recalls Lee, 46, “but he was also pissed — I’m sure what he meant to say was: ‘Where have you been? I’ve been up since 4 a.m. waiting for you!’ He was very childlike then.”
Bob’s stunning recovery has continued apace ever since, not without difficulties (some impaired vision and hearing, some problems recalling words) along with continuing rehabilitation sessions, but still a miraculous comeback for someone who initially could not recall the names of a state or city or even his twins.
Working with Lee on their joint memoir has helped his recovery. The Woodruffs’ “In an Instant: A Family Journey of Love and Healing” (Random House, 284 pages, .95) was to be written by Lee, a freelance writer and public relations executive, who was to base the book on her journals after Bob’s wounding.
But she got to the point in the narrative where Bob woke up and she was to write what he thought and realized that should be in his words. The memoir evolved into most chapters written by Lee, some by Bob, chapters that cover their 19-year marriage with honesty and nuance.
As Lee relates, “How could readers understand how we got through this if they did not understand where we have been?”
Lee is comfortable with personal writing, having done essays for such magazines as Redbook and Family Circle. But it is foreign to Bob, who is a shoe-leather journalist dedicated to chronicling the lives of others. The level of personal revelation in “In an Instant” causes Bob to joke that it is “a chick book.”
“I hate it when he says it’s a chick book,” counters Lee. “We’ve had many couples come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for writing it.’ … That is a huge gift to us.”
The Woodruffs, who live in New York’s Westchester County suburbs, are shocked that “In an Instant” debuted atop The New York Times’ best-seller list and has stayed there for three weeks. Random House has gone through six printings, with 295,000 copies. But this heartening memoir’s sales are not surprising in this time of so much dreary news.
“In an Instant” had a huge sales push from Woodruff appearances in the electronic media, almost every important talk show on all the networks and cable channels. No recent book approached that massive coverage.
But the strongest boost came from Bob’s own reporting. His recent ABC documentary (“To Iraq and Back”) drew a strong audience of 10 million viewers, with its riveting account of his wounding and recovery and its wrenching look at the treatment and care of military casualties with brain trauma, the “signature injury” of the Iraq war, affecting 10 to 20 percent of returning vets.
Bob feels kinship with those vets and will follow their stories. As he says, “It’s sad what I had to go through to report this story deeply, but it has allowed me to get close to military families.”
Both Woodruffs have guilt about all the attention Bob has received because of his celebrity, especially since, as Lee says, “We know we are very privileged.”
The Woodruffs are intent on spreading some of the spotlight onto others in similar straits. That is why Bob was always certain that “To Iraq and Back” would not focus on him, but would include much in-depth coverage of vets with brain traumas and their problems.
But the Woodruffs’ commitment to helping vets with brain traumas goes well beyond a TV documentary. They have been visiting wounded vets on their book tour whenever military hospitals are near their stops, including last Sunday at Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis (“one of the best things to come out of the book,” says Lee).
They have established the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury (bobwoodrufffamilyfund.org), which, in one month has raised 0,000 from small donations to aid vets, but plans to expand its efforts soon.
This is no near-death conversion in character for the Woodruffs. Bob has had a “good guy” reputation in the news business. The Michigan native’s cinema looks and athlete’s physique have led to his being prejudged, in Lee’s words, “as a cocky, pompous pretty boy.” But Bob wins people over with his drive, smarts, work ethic and generosity. He is the kind of person who draws straws with his news crew to see who will sit in coach and who will sit in the first-class seat that is an anchor’s perk.
The Woodruffs radiate an unpretentiousness, perhaps from Bob being one of four brothers and Lee being one of three sisters. But there is no mistaking their intense, driven will.
At age 30, Bob quit his high-power San Francisco attorney’s job with a 0,000 salary to pursue a ,000 reporting job on a tiny TV station in Redding, Calif. Lee was the family breadwinner as Bob toiled in the TV hinterlands, leading to nine moves in 17 years, plus she also was the main parent who often faced inevitable kid crises alone or aided only by a voice on the telephone.
Their big challenges did not begin with Bob’s wounding and did not end when Bob awoke from his coma. The stress of those months at Bob’s bedside, the need to project strength for their four children, the perils of Bob’s surgeries, got to Lee.
“Before Bob had his skull repair, he was afraid of that surgery and I was slipping,” she admits. “I was waking up in the middle of the night, trying to catch my breath, something that had never happened to me before. I talked to Bob’s neuropsychologist and she said I was suffering from situational depression and needed some body armor, so I took medication for depression.
“It definitely helped — I knew there was a bottom there and I wouldn’t slip further. I didn’t talk about that in the book because I didn’t want to get into a Tom Cruise debate about depression and medication.”
Then, in a cruel test for the couple when relief had started to set in, Lee found out that there was a huge fibroid cyst in her abdomen; she had felt pain there for some time but assumed it was an ulcer. Doctors told her that there was a 50-50 chance the cyst was cancerous, a prognosis she did not share with Bob, but it proved to be benign, prompting her “to shed tears in utter relief.”
Lee’s operation and slow recovery forced a dramatic role reversal for the spouses. Bob went from cared-for patient to loving caretaker, what Lee describes as “his glorious payback.”
“Helping her felt wonderful,” Bob emphasizes, “although we both hope to not say hello to surgery again for a very long time.”
Whether Bob will ever anchor again is unknown. The speed of his speech and recall would need to improve for such live work, but he says he would “not be saddened” if he remained a reporter.
One thing he knows he will not be doing is returning to a war zone. Lee has put both feet down about that, along with whatever weight her slim frame can muster. Bob has agreed, although he likes to test that resolve.
“Afghanistan?” he asks.
“No more places that are dangerous enough to cause head trauma,” she counters.
“Like New York City?”
“Active war zones,” Lee says. “Foreign reporting is fine.”
She adds, “I recognize Bob has a need for a certain amount of time when he gets out of the house and out of my hair, too.”
ABC News By JOHN MARSHALL
Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
P-I BOOK CRITIC