A message of hope for caregivers and patients

Photo credit: John Curtis

Lee Woodruff, writer and public relations professional, brought a message of hope to the School of Medicine in December as she described how she and her family coped with her husband’s traumatic brain injury from a bomb in Baghdad. In her address for the Donaghue Foundation’s 4th Annual Andrews Lecture, “A Caregiver’s Journey,” Woodruff said that health care providers must offer hope, understanding, and compassion to patients and their families.

Her husband, ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff, began an odyssey of recovery and rehabilitation after he was struck by shrapnel from a roadside bomb while riding in an Iraqi army tank in January 2006. The left side of his face was raked by rocks and dirt. A rock that sent his helmet flying more than 120 yards also passed through his neck. Sixteen centimeters of his skull had been removed to let his swollen brain expand, and he was in critical condition in a military hospital in Iraq.

“We called it the vortex. We lived in the vortex,” Lee Woodruff said, speaking in The Anlyan Center. “The vortex was where everything was whirling at the center and moving so quickly that common thought and logical thought were left to other people.”

Part of living in the vortex, she said, was dealing with health care workers who seemed unable to provide or communicate empathy. At Bethesda Naval Hospital, she said, “a phalanx of white coats came into the room, orthopaedists, internists, neurosurgeons.” Their prognosis was discouraging: “[he] probably can’t, probably won’t … .”

“You are not even speaking my language,” Woodruff recalled thinking. “You are not even talking English. I was not understanding any of it.” But she refused to believe the worst. “I am not going to let anybody tell me what my husband is or isn’t going to do. They don’t know what a fighter he is.”

Bob Woodruff returned to news reporting at ABC in 2007.Her message, Woodruff said, is hope. “If you tell somebody that that’s really not possible, and that Mom’s stroke means that she’s not going to be ambulatory again … you are setting that caregiver and that family member up to have the lowest possible expectations. You’re setting them up for depression; you’re setting them up for feelings of hopelessness.”

Giving an example of her vision of care, Woodruff described a nurse in a military hospital in Germany who recognized her husband despite his wounds. She bent over to whisper in his ear, Woodruff said. “I know you have kids, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that you get back to them,” the nurse told her husband.

“That is care,” Woodruff said. “That is somebody stepping into that moment where they’re looking at their husband or their brother or their son and saying that somewhere inside that broken brain is a human being. … I would want someone to talk to me that way.”


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