article

01.12.11

Gabrielle Giffords' Difficult Path Back From a Brain Injury

Five years after Lee Woodruff’s ABC News anchor husband, Bob, was hit by a bomb in Iraq, he has experienced a miraculous outcome, and the pair now devote themselves to talking with families about brain injury and recovery. She offers some words of advice to Giffords’ family—and to the media.

When the news broke about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last weekend, it was Groundhog Day all over again. My husband called me from the car. I stopped and said a prayer. And then I turned on the TV, where the stunning first pictures of the scene were coming in. I turned it off.

My first thoughts were not of Ms. Giffords, who at that point was in surgery or at least sedated. My first thoughts were of her husband, Mark Kelly, and what a phone call out of the blue, so unexpected and so devastating, feels like. It is a blow to the mental solar plexus. It is sheer confusion, absorption, and then living hell. Wait, there must be some mistake, is your first thought. Just minutes ago, my world was normal. How can it all go upside down so fast?

Five years ago, I was that spouse, blissfully waking up in Disney World with my four children to the phone call from ABC, telling me that my husband had been hit by a bomb in Iraq. He had taken shrapnel to the head. From that moment on, the outside world shrunk down to a faint background buzz. I would inhabit what I called “the zone” in my own mind. The zone had no room for anything else besides my husband’s condition, our children, and close family and friends. Period.

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My husband has experienced a miraculous outcome. And we have witnessed and come to understand over and over again just how lucky our family is. Since Bob’s very public injury, we both have devoted much time talking to families, advocating for our wounded veterans and others with traumatic brain injury, or TBI. We are honored to be that voice on the other end of the phone for anyone who knows someone who knows us and needs to talk about brain injury and recovery.

Until Bob returned to work 10 months later, I would not turn on a TV or watch any news. It was painful to see that my husband, who loved what he did, was no longer in the mix as a journalist. He might never be in the mix again. As I awoke daily into the fresh hell of grief and uncertainty during the five weeks he was comatose, part of me was stunned that the world outside the ICU window kept on spinning. The sun still rose and set. People still went to the grocery store. I couldn’t imagine it then, but the real work was about to begin.

As we wait and watch in these first few days after the shooting, we will probably not learn many more details about Ms. Giffords’ long-term prognosis. Nor should we. Right now this is a battle she and her family need to wage away from media scrutiny. And it will be a long and hard fight.

There are few miracles and lots of hard work in the excruciatingly slow process of recovering from a brain injury. People ask me when it was I knew Bob would be OK, and I tell them it was a full year before I let my breath out. I would have chosen absolutely any other kind of injury or disease but this. Every other horror I could think of at least had odds or prognoses. A brain injury is as individual as the people who receive them. The brain is our most complicated and complex organ. Some of the deficits and ways people are tinkered with in the aftermath can be painful to bear. Yes, spouses are lucky their loved one is alive, but that creates guilt over grieving the loss of both little and big things. It’s a complicated grief.

And so now we must collectively back away from the Giffords’ bedside. This is a marathon, the doctors told me over and over again, not a sprint. Send the positive thoughts. Keep their names on the prayer lists at synagogues, churches, and mosques. Mail the elementary school classroom get-well cards, bring on the casseroles, plant the flowers in the yard. But don’t hover. Let this family and the others who lost loved ones in this tragedy heal in private. And by the way—as a nation we must be there for those who have come home injured from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as we are for those who serve in public office. We must be supportive of all who walk this long and torturous road.

Almost exactly five years to the day that our family became members of a club we never expected to join, here is what I do know. I share it with Mark Kelly and anyone else going through a difficult journey, a challenge, or their own “in an instant” moment:

1) Human beings are born to survive. The resilience of the human spirit is one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring things to experience and to witness.

2) The love, prayers, and contact with family and friends do help motivate recovery. It was my daughter’s kiss on Bob’s comatose face that brought the very first involuntary response… a tear from his good eye.

3) Hope is a very powerful commodity, and if you can’t feel hope on some days, find that friend or loved one who can hold it for you temporarily.

4) Denial is sometimes a useful tool.

5) Take life hour by hour. Forget about a day—that’s too long. Some days just getting through an hour is a monumental task.

I would have chosen absolutely any other kind of injury or disease but this. Every other horror I could think of at least had odds or prognoses.

6) Everyone takes recovery at his or her own speed. There is no right or wrong answer about how to grieve or get through a tragedy. Be good to yourself. Accept the kindness and good deeds of others. Let go when you need to and buck up for the right reasons. There are no first, second, and third prizes for stoicism or grief.

You make up the rules.

Lee Woodruff is the life and family contributor for ABC’s Good Morning America and the author of In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing and Perfectly Imperfect.