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Bob Woodruff After Traumatic Brain Injury

ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff talks about his recovery from a traumatic brain injury he received in Iraq.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Every so often, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff feels a rock "emerge" from his face “like a zit," he says. But it's not a pimple; it's a not-so-subtle reminder of what he has been through over the past four years.

On Jan. 29, 2006, a mere 27 days after he was tapped to succeed Peter Jennings as the co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight, Woodruff was nearly killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle while on assignment near Taji, Iraq.

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The details of the attack are still murky, but an improvised explosive device (IED) waylaid his convoy. Woodruff was wearing body armor and was in a tank, but his head, neck, and shoulders were exposed during the blast. The blast knocked Woodruff unconscious as rocks and metal pierced his face, jaw, and neck. Woodruff's cameraman, Doug Vogt, and an Iraqi soldier were also hurt.

"How I survived, we still don’t know to this day," Woodruff said in a speech this month in San Diego at the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery's annual meeting. The audience included the surgeon who rebuilt his face after the attack.

Road to Recovery

Right after the blast, no one thought Woodruff would survive.  A medic told his wife, Lee, that a piece of paper that read "expected" was pinned to his chest. "I was expected to die," Woodruff says. When he survived, no one thought he would be able to work again -- especially as a broadcast journalist.

But Woodruff returned to the air 13 months after getting injured, telling his story in a documentary called To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports. "I was nervous my first time back in front of the camera, and people were astounded that I was back at all," Woodruff says.

The journey back was not easy. Immediately after the attack, Woodruff was placed in a medically induced coma for 36 days so his brain could rest and heal.

Upon waking up, "I could not remember my family members' names," Woodruff recalls. "I remembered [my wife] Lee and two of my kids. I could not remember my twins' names. I did not even remember having twins."

After that came multiple surgeries -- about nine, Woodruff estimates. His operations included the removal of part of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Before going to Iraq, "I never had surgery other than dental surgery and a lot of stitches as a result of being raised with brothers," he tells WebMD.

Woodruff’s physical skills came back relatively quickly, but it took an intense cognitive rehabilitation program to regain some of the skills he had lost and relearn everything -- including the names of his then 5-year-old twins. "It took long-term rehabilitation to be able to live again and be back in their lives," Woodruff says.

Woodruff also suffered from aphasia, the inability to find words. Aphasia is caused by damage to one or more brain areas that handle language. "I couldn’t come up with words and I didn’t have a lot of synonyms," he says. "It was hugely frustrating."

The effects of his injury are still apparent. Woodruff occasionally has difficulty finding words or synonyms. He is blind in the upper quarter of both of eyes, and he has lost 30% of his hearing in one ear and 10% in the other ear.

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