Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Review of “In An Instant” – Lee and Bob Woodruff Tell The Story of Their Odyssey

I review a lot of books in The White Rhino Report. I recognize that the readership of this Blog is an astonishingly diverse collection of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, educational concentrations, geographic locations, political perspectives and worldviews. As a result, I seldom make blanket recommendations. On this occasion, I choose to make an exception. This book, “In An Instant,” is a must read! Order it on or run out to the nearest library or bookstore.

The friend who first made me aware of this moving memoir is a hardened military veteran –a West Point graduate with a law degree. He would hardly be labeled a sentimentalist, and yet here was his description of reading what Lee and Bob Woodruff have chosen to share of their “Family’s Journey of Love and Healing”:

“I finished the Woodruff's book. I wept through most of it, having been one of the masses kept in the dark except for Lee's occasional generic ‘Bob is doing OK’ emails. It certainly filled in the details on the timelines.”

I had a similar response in reading the Woodruff’s saga. At several points along the way, I had to stop reading and wipe my eyes so that I could once again focus on the words on the page.

Tom Brokaw calls "In an Instant": "a loving, terrifying, and ultimately inspirational tale of the perils of war, the demands of network journalism, and the strengths of a great marriage. We're all the richer for their courage, their commitment to each other, and their willingness to share the many lessons of their ordeal." Diane Sawyer describes the book as "a passionate love story filled with hope for everyone who has ever wondered how you make it through another day."

Many of you are aware of the basic facts. Just days after being named co-anchor for ABC World News Tonight, replacing the late Peter Jennings, Bob Woodruff was imbedded as a journalist with U.S. and Iraqi security forces near Taji, Iraq. The tank he was riding in was attacked when a roadside bomb was detonated, and he suffered TBI –traumatic brain injury, one of the most common injuries suffered by our troops when IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) are detonated in their vicinity. He lay in a coma for several weeks, and has undergone many months of extensive rehabilitation.

Much of Bob Woodruff’s treatment and rehabilitation took place in a shroud of privacy – a remarkable achievement for so public a figure. Lee and Bob Woodruff have chosen to lift the veil and share intimate details of what it was like for them and for their family to wade through the deep waters of his initial injury and subsequent struggle to live and then to achieve some sense of a return to “normalcy.” This tale is a modern “Odyssey.” A “warrior of the airwaves” leaves home to report on a war, is grievously wounded on the battlefield, and struggles to make it back home to his family - alive and able to resume his role as husband and father. Lee Woodruff is a latter day Penelope, fighting to keep her home, her hopes and her family together while keeping vigil over her comatose husband.

It is clear that Lee and Bob have chosen to share their story – to “imbed themselves,” if you will – into the consciousness of those who are willing to read their story, in order to shine the light of public awareness on the plight of the many veterans who have also suffered from TBI:

“Because of our journey over the past year with traumatic brain injury (TBI), we felt compelled to make something positive out of something so negative. Goodness and healing needed to emerge from such a devastating event.

Our immediate and extended family became committed to helping the members of the military who have suffered brain injuries from the widespread use of improvised explosive devices, many of whom are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation for whatever reason. An overwhelmed Veterans Administration hospital system, lacking funding, and a dearth of professionals trained in TBI in areas outside of larger cities have all meant that the very people who need them most are unable to access services at a critical juncture in their healing.

We established the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury, administered by the Brain Injury Association of America, a twenty-five-year-old national organization dedicated to research, information, advocacy, and support for this silent and misunderstood affliction. Brain injury affects an average of 1.4 million Americans a year.” (Page 283)

In the first few weeks after he suffered his injuries, Bob’s family – and his team of medical professionals – had no way of knowing if he would survive. And if he did survive, they would not know how much brain function he would have left until he woke up and began responding to the world around him. For weeks, he lay in a coma, fighting off infection and the effects of the multiple traumas that his body and mind had suffered. The first glimpse of hope that Lee shares is particularly poignant. It begins with a description of their daughter, Cathryn – Cackie – visiting her Daddy in the hospital while he was still comatose:

“’Daddy, let’s do a kissing contest,’ Cath said now into Bob’s ear. Her expression brightened as she looked at him. She was on familiar territory and was relaxing, getting used to her father’s new face. It had been one of their bedtime rituals on the phone, when Bob was out of town. Both parties would kiss into the receiver as long as they could, and the first one to give up was the loser.

Cathryn lifted up her head to Bob’s cheek and began to kiss it. I noticed with gratitude that one of the nurses had recently shaved him, leaving his face smooth and white on the right side. Looking at the two of them so close, I felt the reverberation of our daughter’s heart. I saw strength and sorrow and so much uncertainty. As her mother, I wanted to have all the answers for as long as time would permit. I wanted to be able to hang the moon in that way that parents do before kids realize their fallibility. But right now there was nothing I could tell my daughter about her father with any certainty at all. I felt not omnipotent but impotent, vulnerable and small.

But then, as I looked at Bob, I saw the most incredible thing. It was a sight that provided a jolt of hope to last for the next few weeks. A small tear was running down from the corner of his eye, his good eye, on the side where Cathryn was kissing him.

‘He’s crying!’ I yelled to no one in particular. ‘He hears Cathryn’s voice and he’s crying.’ The nurse came around, roused by my calls. It was, to this point, my only living proof that Bob was there, inside that Frankenstein head and swollen body. The nurse would back me up later, when I told the doctors. Cathryn and I had seen it. And it was enough for the two of us.” (Pages 121-122)

Lee goes on to describe a conversation she had with one of Bob’s doctors about the prospect of Bob having to deal with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – as part of a rehabilitation regimen once his acute medical crises had been overcome. Their discussion has broad implications for the many women and men returning home to us from the battlefield:

“’Bob has seen a lot of human misery with what he does,’ I explained [to Dr. M.]. ‘He has always been able to come home and shake it off. He saw mass graves in Kosovo, death in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unfathomable sorrow in Indonesia after the tsunami. Doesn’t his ability to have processed this in a healthy way mean he may escape post-traumatic stress disorder?’

‘I wish I could tell you it worked that way,’ said Dr. M. ‘Actually, research shows that the more trauma a person has been through, the more they have seen, the worse the PTSD is. The cumulative effect appears to make the person more susceptible.’

All that collective human misery coalesced into one brain, I thought with a chill. There was the child’s leg Bob found near a mass grave in Kosovo; the blood of Jesus Suarez del Solar, the marine in Bob’s embed division who had stepped on an unexploded U.S. bomb during the 2003 invasion. There was a whole city’s worth of devastation in New Orleans, and there were bodies on the beaches in Banda Aceh two weeks after the tsunami, so bloated they were pitchforked into a truck bed. Bob had a mighty good library of human misery inside is head, I thought. And now, I had learned, all that footage would be his worst enemy.” (Page 166)

One of the most important and sweeping contributions that Lee and Bob Woodruff make through sharing their story is to make readers aware of the scope of issues that face the thousands of veterans returning from the war with TBI. The following catalog of symptoms, complications and treatment requirements is instructive, sobering and overwhelming:

“’Okay, Dr. M,’ I said, pulling the tissue box closer to me, ‘I need to hear it. Tell me all the things we could be dealing with here. I think it’s time for me to know.’

Dr. M began to run through the litany of possibilities. Essentially, the main categories in the brain for cognitive damage were behavioral, social, spatial, speech and language, and executive function, the more logical part of the brain that controls how we order our lives and organize our activities. With a blast injury, it was hard to assess what was or wasn’t damaged because an explosion caused the brain to slosh around against the skull. This sheared off millions of neurons and caused damage that wouldn’t be revealed until Bob woke up. Even then it could take time. Sometimes the differences were subtle – slightly impaired judgment or cognitive ability, perhaps – and sometimes they were more grave, like major personality differences. One of the greatest frustrations with a head injury is that while the person may seem just fine to others, things are profoundly changed inside. These patients – with significant but outwardly subtle damage – were called ‘the walking wounded.’ Back home in America they would be a haunting legacy of the war in Iraq.” (Pages 212-213)

It is precisely because of their all-too-keen awareness of this haunting legacy that Bob and Lee Woodruff have chosen to share their story – in the form of this book, a national tour of media outlets and book signing events, and through the formation of the Bob Woodruff Family Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury.

For the sentient and sensitive person, the reading of this book must evoke a response – a response at the level of emotion and at the level of action. It is not enough for us to read and to feel empathy - for the Woodruffs and for the countless others who are not in a position to tell their own stories of TBI. That empathy needs to lead us to tangible action of some kind. I urge you to click on the link below and explore the fund’s Website. I encourage you to make a financial contribution. I urge you to consider doing some research and volunteering to visit someone with TBI being treated in a rehab facility near you.

The action I have chosen to take is to donate a portion of revenues earned by White Rhino Partners to the Woodruff’s Fund.

Odysseus has returned home from the battlefield and is recovering from his wounds. Let us attend his tale and respond accordingly.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review.

Everyone in Washington should be required to read it,under supervision of course, to be sure they read it and for someone to help them with the big words.

Yes, I know someone would have to read it to Bush with pictures and props.