One phone call turned my world upside down.
It was Jan. 29, 2006, and the then-president of ABC News was on the phone, explaining that my journalist husband, Bob Woodruff, had been hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq where he was covering the war for ABC's World News Tonight. Bob had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was being rushed into battlefield surgery, where doctors would remove half of his skull to save his life. It was unclear whether he would make it through the procedure.
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When the phone rang, I was in Disney World with our four young children. Like many, I was baptized by fire into the world of caregiving. I had no warning, no training and no previous experience. I was terrified.
For the next 35 days, Bob lay in a medically induced coma at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md. [now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center]. As his body physically healed, his mind refused to wake up. My initial hopeful spirit had finally given way to heartbreaking reality. I forced myself to tour an acute care nursing home because doctors had gently been telling me this was Bob's next step — unless he could wake up and begin the grueling process of rehabilitation.
The next day, just like a made-for-TV movie script, Bob woke up on his own, elated, speaking gibberish and gradually becoming aware of the extent of his injuries. Now the real hard work would begin: the long, slow slog of recovery after brain injury and the roller-coaster ride of the caregiver.
The medical staff and others had prepared me to deal with Bob's depression and sadness, the common reaction to patients coming to grips with loss in the wake of traumatic and life-changing events or diagnoses. In addition to my own broken heart, I wondered if I'd be able to carry the weight of my husband's sorrow and preserve the emotional well-being of my children. Could I parent them through the shoals of family trauma without permanently staining their worldview?
Worried about such an uncertain future, I decided to ask Bob directly if he was feeling depressed. Three days after he had emerged from the coma, I took his hand and bent down near his face in the hospital bed, trying not to look at the sunken place on his skull where the bone flap was gone.
"Honey, do you feel cheated?” I asked gingerly. “It would be normal if you did. You just took over the anchor chair from Peter Jennings, and you've barely had time to enjoy the new role. Are you asking yourself, ‘Why me?’ “
Bob's answer set the tone for how I would move forward, for the lens through which I would try to view the immediate future and everything that would come after.