From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries


It’s hard for me to imagine that there was a point in my life when I had no idea what TBI meant. Traumatic Brain Injury. That diagnosis is as devastating, complicated, individual and scary as any that can be delivered in the medical profession.

There are no percentages, no miracle cures, no accurate ways to predict how well someone will or will not recover. There is no timetable for when they will wake up from a coma and no way to assess what they will be left with in terms of “their old self.”

Having a TBI, or being connected to someone who has suffered one, is an exercise in extreme patience. The slow process of recovery makes “watching paint dry” feel like the speed of light. Yes, it’s that slow.

Which is why I had to put my “Type A” just-get-it-done personality aside and accept that we didn’t have any control over this one. Waiting for Bob to wake up from his coma, and then watching him regain his words and cognition, was a very clear reminder that none of us have our hands on the script for how life goes.

In those weeks and months, and throughout that first year of my husband’s recovery, I taught myself to truly take things day by day, and even at some points, hour by hour. Navigating myself, my family and our extended families through Bob’s brain injury taught me some of my most important lessons in life. And you’ll find many of those life lessons in the pages of this book, written by the amazing men and women who have walked in similar shoes. And while every one of these journeys is a little bit different, the sense of resilience, determination and sheer will not to let their TBIs define them is one of the amazing things I find in almost all of the survivors with whom I come in contact.

The compendium of stories here, 101 in all, illuminate the many facets of the TBI journey, from injury to recovery. They are a wonderful testament to just how varied a brain injury can be. They also highlight that element of human nature that is hardwired to look for the gift and the positive transformations that come in the wake of disaster and tragedy.

This book is a wonderful bridge between the military TBI community and the civilian one. While I spend a large part of my time with military families, I recognize the stories in this book—they are the same loving, heartbreaking, familiar ones that I hear from our returning service members. While our veterans are largely wounded by acts of war, the civilian injuries happen in the same “in an instant” way, whether it’s car accidents, falls, or something as simple as a door opening suddenly in someone’s face. It’s stunning how so many people experience a permanent, life-altering TBI from something mundane. You’ll read about one woman who got her TBI when she and her young daughter knocked heads while horsing around.

In the span of years since Bob’s injury, there are days I feel like I have become a virtual expert on traumatic brain injuries, at least to the extent that one can become an expert on one of the least understood parts of the human body. I am blessed that many folks want to share their stories with me. After the publication of our book, In an Instant, Bob and I find ourselves on the receiving end of phone calls from frantic loved ones, we get manuscripts relating other people’s amazing TBI stories, and we are often asked to talk to groups about our experiences. We do as much as we can, and I am particularly excited about writing the foreword for this book because stories are of paramount importance. It was the stories of the survivors and the thrivers after TBI that kept me going during the very dark moments of our own experience, the times when I didn’t know what would become of our little family. Stories connect us, they show us the commonality of experience and they inspire us; they help us to understand that if someone else could find their way, we can too.

How did I get here? How did we become, at least for a time, the national poster family for TBI?

On January 29, 2006, I joined the club that no one wants to be a member of—the more than 2.5 million families every year, just in the United States, who receive the devastating news that their loved one has suffered from traumatic brain injury. I went from a working mother of four with a full life to an overnight caregiver, sitting by a bedside wondering if my husband would live or die. I went from expecting my TV-anchor husband to be able to deliver the news from any location with his photographic memory to hoping that he would simply emerge from his coma and remember who we were.

Let me back up. Because every story has a before and after and it’s only in the aftermath of any traumatic and life-altering event that we truly understand all of the many things we were taking for granted—just assuming would always be there. TBIs have a way of reorganizing your priorities instantly and a way of changing your worldview.

After more than a decade at ABC News, covering just about every major story out there, Bob was named co-anchor of ABC’s World News after Peter Jennings’ sad and untimely death from lung cancer. Bob and Elizabeth Vargas were going to take ABC into the next generation of news.

Just six weeks after taking the anchor chair, Bob was reporting from Iraq for what was his eighth trip there. He had been embedded with the marines during the invasion of Iraq and had covered wars for over a decade. When he would leave to report from areas of conflict, while I certainly didn’t dwell on it, I knew that his job called for him to be in dangerous situations. I understood he could be shot, or be in a car accident, or be kidnapped—all of these scenarios usually involved death at worst, or physical injury or disability at least. But not once did I consider the possibility of a head injury. In fact, I had never really known anyone who’d suffered a head injury.

What happened to Bob on that January day, on a dusty road in Balad, Iraq, is what had been happening and still happens to our troops and innocent civilians in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan every single day. Driving down a road, halfway out of a tank, a 125 millimeter roadside bomb was detonated about twenty-five feet from where Bob was taping a news “stand up” over the roar of the engine. The explosion was powerful enough to shatter Bob’s skull on the left side and send his helmet soaring hundreds of yards away, forever changing the trajectory of all our lives.

What happened next is the stuff of heroism. It is the thing that can often make the difference in outcome for those with TBIs, because time is of the essence to treat and release pressure from a rapidly swelling brain.

It was the quick acting and very brave military team around Bob who did not hesitate. It was the medics who ignored the order not to land the helicopter in the midst of a gunfight. They got Bob and his cameraman out of the battle zone without any concern for their own lives. It was the doctors, nurses and medics who, despite operating on a military base where the “hospital” was fashioned out of tents and run on generators, with doctors and nurses wearing full body armor, continued to saw sixteen centimeters of Bob’s skull off while they were taking mortar fire. That’s right, did you get that last part? They were taking mortar fire while they were operating on my husband and they just kept going. The men and women who volunteer to serve their country have my utmost respect and admiration. They are there on the battlefield so that the rest of us can have choices about joining the military, and they are my personal heroes. No matter what your politics, we all owe our veterans a debt of gratitude.

There is no question that fast action and the understanding of head trauma were critical factors in that golden hour of medicine. That exceptional and timely medical care is certainly a big part of the reason that Bob is back with us as a father, husband, and a journalist who has re-taken the stage of his own life in ways that make me tear up even as I write this.

Bob was taken to the military hospital in Baghdad, transferred to Landstuhl, Germany and then brought to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington by air transport, all within seventy-two hours. He was back home in the States before I could even begin processing that this was us—this was our family—my husband had been hit by a bomb and they believed he had taken shrapnel to the brain. My husband had a traumatic brain injury.

After thirty-six days in a medically-induced coma, Bob woke up, very suddenly, without the usual slower transition that most experience. He was happy and loving, funny and very grateful to be alive. Practically every doctor and nurse in that hospital came in to witness the miracle of his abrupt awakening. Bob was missing words, easily fatigued and working hard to try to put the pieces back together. I began to understand, as the initial euphoria wore off, that this was going to be a long haul. We were getting ready to embark on the old “this is a marathon not a sprint” journey. That is a clichéd inside-TBI phrase I really learned to hate!

If I had thought that Rehabilitation would hold some secrets or silver bullets, I was wrong. It came down to day-to-day hard work and repetition, the determination of my husband to get back to himself—to do that for me, for our four children and of course, for himself. Watching him make that journey, from trying to relearn Mandarin Chinese in the hopes that it would improve his English, to painstakingly undergoing writing exercises, was inspiring and humbling. I fell in love with him even more as I witnessed his sheer determination to triumph.

During our six weeks in the military hospital, we had the privilege of meeting many young men and women and their families on the TBI ward. We watched the different scenarios in the rooms around us: the service members with close families, the ones whose spouses could not afford to leave the children and come to the bedside in DC for long periods, the very young couples, the mothers caretaking sons, most with limited resources. It was in those moments, realizing how lucky we were with our own wonderful network of friends and family and the support of Bob’s employer, Disney-ABC, that we decided we would use our voices to bring attention to our brain-injured service members. We understood that attention would also spill over into the civilian world of brain injury, which I would come to learn was one of the most underfunded, neglected areas of the health care spectrum.

The journey we made by founding the Bob Woodruff Foundation was part of the silver lining for our family, the chance to raise money and awareness for our military families and to try to ease the road for others, after understanding the hurdles that get put in the way with this often frustrating and elusive invisible injury.

That’s why we are so grateful that this important book will not only help TBI survivors and their families navigate their way through the recovery process, providing them with emotional support, understanding, and a sense of community, but also that proceeds from this book’s sales will help our Foundation do its work. We thank Chicken Soup for the Soul for this contribution to the TBI community.

As so many of these wonderful stories illustrate, TBIs are so difficult, because unlike an obvious injury, the outside world doesn’t know anything is wrong. Many of these stories have come more to the fore with the tremendous number of head injuries from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legacy of these wars will be the more than 360,000 service members who have received some form of a brain injury—whether it’s a visible TBI wound from direct injury or the invisible internal wounds of multiple concussive blasts, post-traumatic stress or combat stress. Many of these soldiers wouldn’t have survived their head wounds in previous wars, or would have been diagnosed with “shell shock” and written off by society, living in “the back of the house,” as one doctor described it to me. But today we continue to discover more about the brain and how to help it heal. You will see many wonderful examples of healing in the stories on these pages.

The great number of brain injuries, the signature injury of these wars, has also helped to bring attention to TBI in general and shine a light on how we protect our athletes from concussions and TBIs. More attention is being paid to athlete safety, from the middle school field to the professional arena, and also to post-concussion care for athletes. All of this is important to help guide future rules and laws and behaviors in the area of prevention.

It was a full year before I let my breath out with Bob. A full year before I allowed myself to believe that this was all headed in a good direction, that he, and we, might be okay. During that time I had many balls in the air, making sure the kids were okay, getting back to work, supporting Bob’s recovery. I was Bob’s advocate, his nurse, his best friend and his protector. And in that first year especially, it was an adjustment to shift the relationship back from being a full-time caregiver to more of a wife and partner as he began to recover.

I learned many things on this unexpected journey with TBI. I learned the beauty of being more in the present. That sounds like a greeting card line, but in the absence of being able to do anything else, I had to face each day with my own inner sense of peace, filter out the negative I didn’t want to deal with and try to focus on what was right in front of me to remain hopeful. Looking ahead too far down the road was scary and sometimes looking back was sad, so I learned to love exactly where I was in the moment. I’ve tried to adopt this outlook in the way I live now, even though it’s not possible every single day.

Speaking of hope, I learned that with a TBI, many folks, especially in the acute care stage, believe it’s their job to minimize your expectations, to circumscribe your loved one’s chances for recovery so that you don’t get “your hopes up.” I tried not to listen to those people. I wasn’t going to let anyone beat anything out of me that might help me to get through each day; to keep Bob and my family feeling positive and upbeat, to give me the energy to put my feet on the floor each day and walk in the ICU. I didn’t want anyone to rush to judgment about my husband’s prognosis, especially before he had woken up. In those early days, I was determined to understand TBI on my terms, without going on the Internet and scaring the pants off myself. When all we could do was wait and pray, I needed to leave room for hope to be nuanced, for me to believe that my husband might be the recipient of a miracle. Why not? I have come to understand that hope can be found even in terminal situations. Hope doesn’t have to mean cure. But it should always allow for wonderful, loving and appropriate care.

I learned firsthand that no one successfully gets through any big event without some combination of what I call the 4 F’s: family, friends, faith and funny. That last one, a sense of humor, is critical to living in the land of TBI. You’d better be able to laugh together and as a family if you are going to survive the very long stretch between injury and recovery. Bob and I have numerous examples of funny moments where we all cracked up. Laughter heals; it releases good things, so learn to laugh together. It sure beats crying. Gallows humor came about for a very practical reason. When you whistle past the graveyard and laugh at the thing that scares you, you remove some of the power it has over you.

And finally, I have come to understand that recovery is a continuum. You never are “fully healed,” in the sense that you will return to exactly who you were before the injury. But the good news is that the brain continues to repair itself years and decades after the injury. I remember Trisha Meili, the “Central Park Jogger,” telling me that all of these years later after her attack, she still sees improvements. Our brains—with their astounding neuroplasticity and ability to recover and reconnect—are a surprising source of good news and inspiration for all the families who live with brain injury. And as Bob says, “We are constantly changing and growing and transforming as humans. We never remain the exact same person we were, TBI or not.”

I know that we are among the lucky ones. We had excellent medical care right off the bat, we had the best resources, and often, when Bob’s progress could have gone one way or the other, it went the right way. It also helped that Bob had such a good attitude. When he woke up from his coma, I was worried he would be depressed, as is common among TBI patients at various points. After all, he had just started his dream job at the apex of his career and then, six weeks later, it was taken away by a bomb—in an instant.

But instead of asking “Why me?” Bob said, “Why not me? What makes me any different or more special than the twenty-five-year-old kid from Kansas who is sitting in a tank. Just because I’m on TV?” That was the moment I decided if he wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself, then that was the way I would choose to move through the world. I can’t tell you we both didn’t experience sorrow and loss and grief—that’s part of the process—but that outlook did make a huge difference in Bob’s recovery and mine. Many marriages do not make it through the TBI journey. I am thankful that ours remained as strong as ever.

As you read this collection of personal, revealing stories, you’ll take a journey through the world of TBI—reading about the myriad ways that people suffer their TBIs, the ups and downs of recovery, and the new paths our writers have followed since their TBIs. Some people were in comas for a long time; others weren’t even diagnosed with their TBIs until years after they occurred, having been told it was “just a concussion.” You’ll read stories from family members about their roles as caregivers and cheerleaders, advice from healthcare professionals, and you’ll pick up great tips from caregivers and from the patients themselves, coping strategies that may work for you too.

You’ll also read a lot about accepting a new normal, finding the good in the bad, and working hard. Persistence, positive thinking, and perspective are key themes throughout the book. The stories are inspiring and motivating, a great boost for your spirit, as well as a source of information. You’ll undoubtedly find some stories that particularly resonate with you that you’ll return to over and over again.

I need to make one final comment before I set you off on your own journey of healing, comfort, and community through these 101 stories. And that is that nothing will ever be the same again. I love the fact that most of the stories in this book are written by the person with the TBI. So you can meet the survivors, hear about their recoveries, and develop an understanding of how their lives are permanently changed. Many abandoned their original careers, or embarked on new ones they like even more. Many talk about their permanent impairments. But many also talk about the gifts they have found in their new lives.

I hope that this book not only helps all of the TBI patients and their families out there, but also raises awareness of the TBI issue in the civilian and military population. The next time you are frustrated by someone slowly counting out change in the grocery store line ahead of you, remember you may be standing behind a TBI survivor. Maybe even someone who raised his hand when his country asked him to go. There are millions of TBI survivors out there. And they are all the bravest, most resilient people I know.

~Lee Woodruff

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