Lee Woodruff: Love, Anger, Hope in Caring for Husband

On Jan. 29, 2006, Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were hit by a giant roadside bomb. The explosion shattered the left side of Woodruff's skull, and the same thing happens all the time to many American servicemen and women in Iraq.

In "In an Instant," a book by Bob and his wife, Lee, Lee writes that she and Bob became that couple in the news.

Imagine that your life, like Lee Woodruff's, was perfect. You have a beautiful family, the golden horizon. For 27 days, Bob was living his dream -- co-anchor of "World News Tonight." Then in just an instant, David Westin, president of ABC News, wakes her with a phone call to tell her that Bob has been seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and that there is shrapnel in his brain.

Lee reeled in terror, she writes in the book, and tried to keep it from her children.

"Kathryn was awake, my eldest daughter, and she said, 'Is something wrong with Daddy?'," Lee told "Good Morning America." "And I said, 'Your Dad's been hurt, but I think it's going to be okay.' And the 'think it's going to be okay' part -- I just kept that at the end of anything I would ever tell them."

Her daughter Kathryn said her mother was always optimistic.

"Really she was always the one that would say, it's going to be okay," she said. "No matter what the doctor said, she was always really supportive."

After this talk with her children, she went into the shower and cried.

When Lee entered Bob's room at the hospital in Germany, the nurse told her to look at his body slowly in stages because the nurse was afraid Lee would faint.

"I started with his feet and then I moved up to his head and on the left side it was like the surface of the moon," Lee said. "There were hundreds of rocks that had been blasted into his face. Coming out of his head was his brain, swelling out through his, the opening in his skull, and that was terrifying."

The brain scans were irrefutable. The left section of his skull was gone. Cameraman Doug Vogt was also gravely injured. But soon, Vogt was talking and walking, while Bob stayed in a coma, day after day after day.

Lee was there, by his side through his risky surgeries to remove rocks near his arteries, through the infections and the sepsis. In the book she writes how hard it was to keep her little flame of hope alive.

"I would walk in there everyday with a little bundle of hope into the hospital elevator and on the ride up to the third floor, which is where the ICU was, I would kind of nurse it like a little pile of embers," Lee said. "And by the time I would get in the room, there he was again."

For Lee, among the scariest parts of the ordeal was Bob's battle with pneumonia.

"That was in God's hands," she said. "There was nothing we could do but pray and pray that Bob was strong enough to get through that."

During that period, Lee said she saw Bob receding away from her.

Bob was "shrinking almost physically," she said. "My sister Nan, who has the best nose in the family, told me later that she knew the smell of death and that smell of death hung in his room."

Still, Lee talked to him the whole time.

"I would just tell him these stories or I would be telling him something about our life and it would flash me back to an earlier period and it would bridge us to where we'd been and I realized how interconnected a marriage is," she said. "Where you are in the future is all about where you've been in the past."

When the couple first met, they were students at Colgate University. She was mesmerized by his intensity and his passion for books.

Most people think Lee fell in love with Bob's green eyes, but in fact, she wrote in her book, she fell in love with his brain.

"He was the smartest guy I've ever met," she said. Bob is "so kind of unaware of how great he is, completely unaware of how cute he was, still to this day."

Bob fell in love with Lee's sense of humor.

"She is without question the funniest woman I'd ever met in my life," he said. "In fact the very first date that we had after I first met her, that first moment, it's been nothing but laughs. Obviously, we've had problems."

But while she was a girl who had barely traveled, Bob was a virtual gypsy and adventurer. He was on top of Mt. Pisco in Peru with friends when he decided he had to marry her.

"There I was, up to 22,106 feet and I thought to myself, 'I really want to get married. I got to decide right now,'" Bob said. "So I came back, I got off the plane. I hadn't shaved for three weeks. I smelled like hell. I called her up. I said meet me down there at the park in New York and I proposed to her."

"How about that? So you have to be oxygen deprived and only with men to realize that you're going to propose to the love of your life. How does that make me feel?" Lee joked.

Lee spent her time in the hospital bargaining with God at five o'clock every morning; even if Bob couldn't speak, she just wanted him to stay alive. Doctors said with a smile that the only time he seemed to stir out of his coma would be when she asked him to.

"I remember the doctor saying, 'Well, you must really exert a real control on him even in his subconscious.' And I said, 'Well, maybe it's just that he loves me so much he hears me through his coma,'" she said. "And they sort of looked at me like, 'No. Somewhere in there you have him terrified to obey you.'"

Lee also spent some time being angry at Bob.

"I cycled through lots of anger. One twin each was pulling on my arm or punishing me for having been gone and I would think, 'Bob why did you do this to us?'" she said. "I know exactly why he [went to Iraq]. He is still inside that 16-year-old boy filled with awe."

A month passed and he sank further and further into his coma. He also began flailing wildly, a sign of deterioration. Doctors said it was probably time for a nursing home. For Lee, it was the breaking point; she was falling apart.

"I just crawled into bed with him [in the hospital] and I just said, 'You've got to do this. You've gotta.' ... God, it's in your hands now."

Lee said she could hear the prayers up and down the halls of the other wives, mothers and children.

"I think three soldiers passed away in the time Bob was in the ICU. There were a couple of big surges of planes coming back full of really wounded people," she said. "And those families mirrored our own. We'd buck each other up and there were a lot of prayers and a lot of people looking for a lot of hope in that hospital."

But on March 6, everything changed.

"I had collapsed into Bob's brother's arms the night before and I said, 'David, I don't know how I'm going to do this. I don't know how I keep going. I can't live away from my kids anymore,'" Lee said. "I woke up that morning and I went for a swim cause that was sort of the only moment I was alone."

After her swim, she entered the room expecting to see Bob in a coma.

"I walked in that room again expecting to see the same old, same old and there was Bob -- shaved head, goofy grin on his face sitting up in bed," she said. "He looked at me and he just said, 'Sweetie, where have you been? What'd you go out for coffee?'"

"And I wish that I'd had a camera. I would have loved to have seen my face because I remember thinking two things. One: oh my goodness, he's awake; oh my gosh, he's awake," she said. "And then thinking where's the rolling pin? I need the Lucy Ricardo. 'Ricky, where do you think I've been? I've been right by your bed for five weeks.'"

No one was more astonished than the doctors who say they still don't know how a man with a damaged language center in his brain could be talking.

Recently, Lee and Bob traveled the path back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"These are all of the people that helped saved my life. They had been with me for five weeks," Bob said. "I didn't recognize any of them because I never met them and this was the first time I was able to meet them."

Then they entered the room where for so long Lee held onto Bob for his life -- his old hospital room.

"We had made that room sort of a shrine to Bob's life -- photos all over the room, pictures from school children," Lee said. "We spent so much time in that room and ... it was about all the people that had been in that room since Bob left it ... I thought how many other wives have sat by this same bed."

As the book recounts, Bob's near-fatal brain injury in Iraq was not the first encounter with fear or heartbreak in their marriage.

Right before the wedding, Lee had a lump in her breast. It was benign.

Then the couple experienced long periods spent apart during his career as a foreign correspondent. For her, she also had a devastating miscarriage and hysterectomy. One of her twin daughters was born with profound hearing loss.

But nothing could prepare Lee for learning so much anew.

During Bob's homecoming, he remembers dancing.

Looking back, Lee said coming back home was the hardest part of the ordeal.

"Rock bottom was actually when we got home here to this house and I was left with a husband who was tired, exhausted and in pain and cranky because he had to wear a helmet any time he got out of bed," she said. "And I had to be that Nurse Ratchet, saying, 'Is your helmet on? Put your helmet on.' And I still saw a man without a lot of words.'"

Bob became a man who kindergartners read books to because he couldn't put words together.

"That was rock bottom for me," she said. "I for the first time understood what an anxiety attack was -- when you wake up in the middle of the night and your heart is racing out of your chest and you think, 'I have four kids. How am I gonna do this? How am I going to put them through college? How am I going to take care of everybody? How am I going to take care of him?'"

On one of the dark days, she noticed something else. In the book, she writes, "down by my stomach ... a little bubble of flesh." It was a tumor.

"I was terrified and Bob was terrified and the tumor was discovered in just a routine ObGyn," she said. "I had pushed all my visits off because I was just so overwhelmed with Bob's situation. And it looked like it was probably 50/50. I bet the odds were worse, but I think the doctors could see the strain I was under and I never told Bob that. I didn't want him to worry."

When Lee found out it wasn't cancer, she said she felt so much relief, she fell apart a second time.

For a time, Lee experienced depression, but eventually it lifted.

"You know I think it getting out of this house [changed her outlook]," she said. "This house was full of sickness to me for so long."

The family spent a summer at a lake where they appreciated the sweet beauty of ordinary things like carpools and making coffee. Bob began returning word by word.

She also allowed herself a version of straying by looking at other husbands with perfectly shaped heads.

"I've been looking at the crew all morning. There are some really good shaped heads in here," she said. "I touch Bob's. It still has big creases in it. When Bob goes bald it's not going to be pretty."

A year ago today Bob was still in a coma.

"I had vowed that we wouldn't make a big deal out of it. So I was tucking the twins into bed, they were falling asleep with me and Nora started crying," she said.

When Lee asked her what was wrong, Nora said, "I don't want you to die."

Lee told her that she wasn't going to die.

Nora went on to say that she liked her "old daddy."

"And I thought, okay ... what have we been trying so hard to make all this right? And I said, 'Well what is it about the new daddy that makes you think he is different?'" Lee said. "She said, 'Well, he has red stuff on this face now and his body's not perfect anymore and he has all those scars on his back and his hair sticks straight up and his head's an oval.' And I thought, 'His head's an oval? I didn't notice that one.'"

Nora also complained that her father didn't always have the right words.

"And I said, 'But he is getting all the words.' And she said, 'But you know what? The new daddy loves me so much more,'" she said. "And I thought, 'Okay, I'll take that.'"

Now Lee says she too is back, completely loving and fiercely honest.

Bob says he does feel guilty about his injuries.

"I think that this is a demanding job ... I guess he should feel guilty in a way, because I think that if he didn't feel guilty there'd be something wrong," she said. "It's tough to balance this career with family and being there. And I mean guilt is a useless emotion, but I think apathy would be worse."

Bob still doesn't know if traveling there was worth it.

"I think that's a good question. Was it worth doing? You know, I don't know. That's a very good question," he said. "If we can somehow help those who are getting injured a little bit more than they are helped now, then that would be worth it."

In the book, Lee has the last word.

She writes about marriage:

"And so we have to choose to laugh and keep smiling, we have to hope that there's always something better around the corner to make the choice to be resilient, ultimately to bounce back is to make the choice to be grateful, as grateful as possible for the cards you've been dealt," she wrote in the book. "As we continue, our journey of healing as a family, I look to Bob for inspiration, I look at the man I choose to walk through this world with and I feel only love, love and unending hope."

Bob and Lee Woodruff have established a fund to assist members of the military who are suffering from brain injuries. To learn more, click here: Bob Woodruff Family Fund.