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The Reality of Suddenly Becoming a Caregiver

How a catastrophic event in Iraq changed Lee and Bob Woodruff's life

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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.

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Woodruff in the hospital with his brother by his side

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.

spinner image Bob Woodruff and kids

"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.

spinner image Lee Woodruff
Lee Woodruff

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"Why not me?” he answered, with no trace of bitterness. “I'm no different than the 25-year-old soldier from Kansas. Just because I'm on TV doesn't make me more special than anyone else.”

I was stunned — in a good way. Bob's response and his ability to try to look at everything from a place of positivity was what allowed me to pick myself up that day and vow to do the best I could as a caregiver.

Anyone who has been through “the bad thing” knows that not every day can be viewed with Doris Day-like optimism. There were good stretches and then periods of what I called “payback” — two steps forward and sometimes three back. There were moments of grief and also secretive soul-crushing sob fests, and there was disappointment, regret and anger. That would be the stuff of real life.

This is my first column as a regular contributor to AARP, where I will be sharing my caregiving experiences and those of others. I am humbled by the stories of people who care for loved ones and friends through many different aspects of hardship and adversity. They are the true heroes to me, especially the thousands of military families who endure injury, illness and loss in service to their country.

I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers. And our family's story is just one of millions out there, each one important to remind us how we all get through — by combining our strengths, doling out helpful advice and feeling connected to a larger caring community.

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And while we all can't adopt the “Why not me?” attitude every single day, my attempts to hold that thought on the bad days was a kind of armor, a mental talisman when I felt myself slipping under. It's those moments of grace that can pull us through when we feel simultaneously overwhelmed and grateful as caregivers.

So tell me: What were your hardest days of caregiving and how did you get through them? Share your story with us.

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and the author of three books, including the best-seller, In an Instant. She and her husband, Bob, are cofounders of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter @LeeMWoodruff and Instagram @leewoodruff.

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