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18 Years After My Husband’s Bomb Blast Injury in Iraq, I Still Have Caregiving PTSD

Traumatic events can have a long-term impact on a person’s ‘physical, emotional, social or spiritual well-being’

spinner image bob and lee woodruff
Bob and Lee Woodruff, 2006, shortly after he was released from the hospital.

Sitting on a train headed into Manhattan, I’d been expecting my husband’s call. He was at the doctor, waiting for the MRI results on a torn hamstring to determine if he required surgery. 

“It’s pretty bad,” he said, of the sports-related injury. “The muscle ripped completely off the bone and they need to reattach it as soon as possible. Oh, and the nerve is torn too.” He tried to sound casual with that last part, but I heard the concern. “They need to get a special surgeon …” I closed my eyes when I heard the words “... prevent paralysis.” 

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I imagined his frustration and helplessness, being home 24/7 on crutches for eight weeks, unable to carry a cup of coffee to the table. My husband was not built for captivity of any sort.

How to process trauma

Jennifer Guttman, 56, from Pleasantville, New York, is a clinical psychologist and author of Beyond Happiness. She defines a traumatic event as any incident that causes lasting negative effects on a person’s physical, emotional, social or spiritual well-being. “There are things you can do to help work through the trauma, process it, soothe yourself and get to the other side,” she says. Here are some of Guttman’s tips.

Talk, talk, talk to friends and family. The more you talk, the more actively your brain can process the trauma.

Make time for self-careYour nervous system is rattled to its core, so take time to care for yourself with whatever activities restore you.

Avoid substances. The use of substances, although they may provide temporary escape, actually prolongs the healing process.

Delegate tasks to others. Lean on the people around you so that you can focus on healing.

Stay in the present. Use mindfulness techniques, meditation, art therapy or grounding exercises to be in the now, instead of reliving the traumatic event.

Get professional help. If negative feelings escalate, enlist the help of a doctor or therapist.

There would be unavoidable weeks of waiting on him, the “thank-yous” wearing thin — a surefire recipe for resentment on both sides. Our daughter’s wedding was three weeks away. I tried to picture what a “first dance” with her father might look like on crutches and how I could minimize her disappointment. I managed to keep my tone light. 

Processing the news of his surgery and the potential risks, I played out a worst-case scenario in my mind. This technique had always worked in the past, mentally making the “bad thing” small while zooming out to see the bigger picture, the passage of time and how, years from now, this would be a story we told.

But something unexpected happened. Reaching down for “more,” I felt the very bottom of my tank.

But I didn’t just feel it — I scraped it, like a shovel hitting a rock. Surely, you’ve heard of the “reserve tank,” one of those auto racing terms for people, especially caregivers, who are programmed to go-go-go? Just squeeze the tube a little harder, we are told, and more energy will come out. 

I cannot sit in that waiting room. I cannot physically or mentally do that again. The thought appeared inside my head, fully formed.

Staring out at the approaching skyline on the train, I felt a sudden wave of nausea and a shortness of breath.

My heartbeat rose dramatically as a surge of adrenaline coursed through my body, similar to sensations I’d experienced when my children tumbled down the stairs or a car swerved into our lane, narrowly missing us. My body was suddenly electrified, bathed in some kind of fear stimulus that I couldn’t control. 

A life-changing event

Eighteen years ago, in 2006, I’d experienced my first big traumatic event when my husband was injured in Iraq while covering the war for ABC News. The phone rang early one morning, delivering the news that his vehicle had been hit by a roadside bomb.

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My life with four young children was rocketed into a fresh hell. My response was clear-headedness and an icy sense of calm as I made decisions and flew to the military hospital in Germany. There wouldn’t be time to fall apart or to grieve for months, even years.

He endured multiple surgeries to save his life and then was in a coma for five weeks. I sat by his bedside in Washington, D.C., for weeks, waiting to see what would be left of the man I married when he finally woke up. Slowly, with a ton of support, our family began to heal. And after a long rehabilitation period, Bob’s recovery, was nothing short of a miracle. 

Fast-forward to a few years ago. My husband needed a knee replacement after a lifetime of activity. Without consulting me, he picked a surgery date that conflicted with my schedule. Chuffed at the lack of communication and coordination — an Achilles’ heel in our marriage — I decided to prove a point.

“If you say you don’t need me at the hospital, well, I’ll take you at your word,” I huffed during a phone call where pride got in the way on both sides. After everything we’d been through medically, how did he not understand that you needed an advocate? When the day came, I was secretly relieved to be far from the hospital waiting room.

Our children were grown by this time, and our eldest daughter was able to transport her dad home from the surgery and stay with him that first night. But my prideful decision would come back to haunt me.

Before midnight, Bob began to experience a reaction to his medications and the anesthesia. My daughter called, terrified, home alone with him, and I dressed and scrambled into the car in minutes, my heart beating in my throat. When I pulled in the driveway at sunrise, Bob was sleeping soundly.

I booked an appointment with his doctor that day, and the situation was under control. But the four-hour drive home, nerves jangling, walking her through what to do on the phone, left deep grooves on my psyche. 

‘Trauma compounds trauma’

Now, staring out the train window, experiencing a physical reaction to Bob’s news about his hamstring surgery, I was taken aback at my own weakness. What was wrong with me? I’d never run into a wall before when it came to caring for loved ones. I mostly viewed myself as “resilient” and “tough,” complimentary words other people had used to describe me, especially under pressure.

People got points in America for being able to “gut things out,” to deal with grief quietly, move through things and get over them. In the years since Bob had been injured in Iraq, I’d heard some version of this sentence thousands of times: “I don’t know how you did all of that!” Phrases like this always felt like a backhanded compliment, underscoring how strong you were while pointing out your extreme bad fortune. 

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“Trauma compounds trauma,” a Bethesda Naval Hospital neurologist replied when I asked what to expect emotionally after Bob emerged from his coma. “The more horrible things people have experienced and witnessed, like many service members, the harder it can be to transition home.” I remembered worrying then. While Bob wasn’t in uniform, carrying a weapon, he had spent a great deal of time covering conflicts and seeing the horrors of war up close. Would he be forever changed by this experience? I’d wondered.

But the person I hadn’t considered in that equation was me. Maybe trauma had compounded trauma for me? Sitting on the train, listening to the rundown of surgical concerns for the hamstring operation in two days, I felt only panic. I kept pushing my internal gas pedal, but nothing was happening. 

Overwhelmed and depleted

In Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, she describes her grief process after her husband died. Tragically, she would lose their only child, a daughter, 20 months later. “I also notice that I do not have the resilience I had a year ago,” she writes. “A certain number of crises occur, and the mechanism that floods the situation with adrenaline burns out. Mobilization becomes unreliable, slow or absent.” Was that what was happening to me? I wondered.

spinner image bob and lee woodruff walk their daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
Bob and Lee Woodruff walk their daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
Courtesy Lee Woodruff

“I can’t be there with you,” I said in a small voice when I met my husband at home later that night. The kids can step up and help.” Something in my voice must have told him not to press it. He still carries a healthy degree of guilt around his bomb blast injury in Iraq, the sense that he “did this to the family.” But my 32-year-old, 29-year-old, and my 23-year-old twins were older now and fully capable of being on the front lines. 

Two days later, instead of accompanying my husband to the hospital, I traveled north to the mountains, where the wedding would take place. Just a few weeks prior, my husband and I had spent time there planting flowers and putting up fencing to stop the woodchucks, feeling connected and excited as we talked about the wedding details. Now, absorbing what the next few months would be like, that couple was unrecognizable. And I was afraid. 

Our children rose to the occasion with empathy and energy, two qualities I suddenly seemed to lack. Was it the vigilance that had ground me down? Even when your attention was elsewhere, part of a caregiver’s brain is always peeled off, tuning in, anticipating and worrying. That kind of focus would surely lead to exhaustion over time. 

The surgery went well, and the nerve along my husband’s hamstring was successfully reattached. The weeks ticked by with Bob on crutches, all of us adjusting. The wedding weekend was gorgeous, the father-daughter dance was epic, featuring a light-up cane that pulsed to the beat of the music. But more than anything else, I began to see the small gift in my unexpected panic. There were limits to what I could do, to my capability. And I understood what they were, and that was OK. None of us was a superhero. 

“I think I had a post-traumatic stress response around your surgery,” I said, first to Bob and then to my kids. Just voicing that helped me deal with my own shame, my sense of being less than capable. If I could name it, point to it, then maybe it was real because I had processed it. 

But the other unanticipated gift was the chance to watch my own children step in and step up as adults. Whatever else life might throw at all of us down the road, I felt immense relief in knowing we would handle it together.

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