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Sheryl Sandberg and Lee Woodruff: A Conversation on Recovery and Resilience

Lee Woodruff joins Sheryl Sandberg to talk about the experience her family went through after her husband, Bob, was critically injured on assignment for ABC News in Iraq.

[0:01-0:41] Sheryl: Hi everyone, and welcome to Facebook and Lean In Live, I’m so excited to be joined today by Lee Woodruff, who is a best-selling author and an incredible example of resilience and just a great woman. Lee’s husband, Bob, was a co-anchor of ABC News Tonight and was reporting on the war in Iraq and critically injured by a roadside bomb – something I think everyone followed and felt for this amazing family and couple. He survived and had a long road to recovery, Lee and Bob wrote this book, In An Instant, which was a remarkable journey and poem. Is it a poem?

[0:42-0:49] Lee: It’s this story of healing and coming out the other side, because you go to go through it, as you know.

[0:50-1:25] Sheryl: So I’m excited to have you here, welcome to Facebook. So, you were at Disneyworld, of all places, you were with your four children, and you got the call that no one wants.

Lee: Yes, the call that no one wants.

Sheryl: That Bo was gravely injured, and he then spent – sorry I’m emotional about these things – 36 hours in a medically induced coma, which had to just be horrific to live through, the uncertainty. Let’s start at the beginning – how did you endure these, and one thing, it’s not just 36 days, it’s 36 years, because every day feels forever.

[1:26-1:40] Lee: It is. And time has no meaning in an ICU, does it? You’re in this altered state. Maybe you called it a void in your book, and we called it the vortex. In the vortex, nothing else mattered, other than what would happen to him. And the prognosis was grim.

[1:41-2:02]: I was basically given the number one, he might not lived, and number two, be prepared, have a plan B, which is what we called it, because he probably won’t ever be able to work, talk; I mean, they were talking about acute care nursing homes. And I stayed in this world of hope; it was later-

[2:03- 2:04] Sheryl: Were you? You were able to stay hopeful that whole time?

[2:05-2:34] Lee: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. I chose not to go onto Google, and look what a traumatic brain injury would do. I let other people talk to the doctors, I didn’t want to look at the scans; there were rocks all in his head, they cut his skull off, there was a rock right on his carotid artery, they didn’t know how they’d get it out. I just didn’t want to look, I didn’t want to see. I thought if I just kept showing up and looking for those little things.

[2:35-2:45]: And you talk about that, so beautifully, in Option B. Those little moments where you tell yourself I’m just going to be present, because if i toggle forward it’s frightening, and if I toggle backwards, it’s so sad.

[2:46-2:58] Sheryl: Right. So his recovery was a miracle for your family, but it was also long and grueling, and it was a very long road to regain speech and movement, and it put you in a caregiving role I don’t think either of you expected.

[2:59-3:16]: The title of my book comes from my friend Phil who said, “Option A isn’t available, so we’re going to kick the shit out of Option B.” This must have been a complete Option B for you. How did you and Bob learn to find your way through it accept the reality and make the most of it?

[3:17-3:40] Lee: Stories are so powerful, and it is what you did with your book and it’s what we did. Somebody was asking me earlier, “how did this book come about?” As a writer, I just needed to start making sense of this. I didn't know he would live so I wanted to write what would happen for the kids; and then if he did live, I knew as a journalist, he have a thousand questions and I wouldn't remember anything that happened, so I just started writing.

[3:41-4:16]: And one of his neurosurgeons who I loved – I mean it's all about bedside manners – he said, “hey, you’re a writer. Someone needs to write a book about this, because thousands of these service members are coming through these military hospitals and nobody in America has any idea that these injuries are happening. These men would be dead 10 years ago, in another war. Somebody needs to write about it.” And that stuck in my head. Because you can’t rewind the tape. But if you can take the bad thing and do something good with it; if you can use your story, as you did, to maybe ease the way for someone else.

[4:17-4:49]: I wanted to say something earlier that I did I didn’t, and it was hindsight that I realize there were four things you asked me how did I get through those 36 days. And even in the year beyond, he woke up and he woke up in this really beautiful, sweet where he was telling everybody that they were beautiful. But he was missing all of his words, so he had to slowly learn all that again. And I realized there were four legs of my stool, and they all started with F: family, friends, faith, and funny.

[4:50- 5:04] Sheryl: Oh, those are so great.

Lee: And in different percentages. Different days, different hours, different things. You talk about humor in getting you through, and ultimately you were in a place. We used all the time. Gallows humor laughing at, you know, everything.

[5:05-5:31] Sheryl: It is amazing. So writing, was – I’m not a writer by profession, but Lean In made me a writer. I learned that I loved to write, and I sat down and wrote my journal. And writing was clearly so great for your recovery. I loved the idea that you were documenting for Bob. When did it shift and the writing became for the book?

[5:32-5:38] Lee: Boy, I had an 800 page document, and then people knew I was a writer.

Sheryl: You must have cut down a little.

Lee: Yeah. there’s a second book and I’m going to give it to you, it’s right over there!

[5:39-6:10]: So someone approached me and asked if I wanted to do a book, and I still had the neurosurgeon’s words in my head, and I thought well, I have this 800 page document. When you’re in a brain injury, they tell you to just to talk to them. So I went back and I told all the stories. We started our marriage in Beijing, China. I would just tell him the stories of our life and somewhere in there, his brain was rebooting. And so this 800 page document was the story of our life, the story of our love, and the story of our healing.

[6:11-6:44] Sheryl: I love the legs of the stool. So family, friends, faith, and funny.

Lee: And funny, people looked at us sometimes. My girlfriend Melanie Bloom, married to David Bloom, he was the NBC reporter who died in Iraq. So when he died, I became that friend that you write about in your book. You know, just there – from figuring out all the things for her, from her from the patent leather shoes for her three girls to wear the funeral and then I was there when she broke the news to him, which you write about, as well. I mean, when she broke the news to her children.

[6:45-7:14]: So when I read that part in your book, I just couldn’t. So we would show up, get invited to a holiday party somewhere and we would be like OK great, we’re the 2 people you want at your holiday party, we’ve got death and dismemberment here! Aren’t we a ball?

Sheryl: So, let’s talk about this! So you were the friend that showed up and you understood. What we talked about before this show, that in some ways, sometimes when there’s injury – not death – it can be harder!

[7:15-7:31]: Because, you know, people will say to me, “Sunday is Father’s Day.” People know I’m missing Dave, and people will remember it’s Father's day and ask if I’m okay. But when the person is alive, they don’t know quite what to say. So, what advice do you have for friends and family? Do you think people should address it, not address it?

[7:32-7:50] Lee: That’s a great question. And before I answer that, I was jealous of Mel. I know that’s going to sound really funny. But David was dead, so she went to the lowest place that she could go, and all she had was to come back. I call it bounce – some people call it resilience – she needed to find a way to bounce.

[7:51-8:03]: I didn’t know what my life would be like with Bob, if he didn’t wake up, and my kids were visiting four kids in a nursing facility for the rest of their lives. I wanted to be her at times, I know that sounds really crazy.

[8:04-8:24] Sheryl: No, it doesn’t. If someone is in a medically-induced coma, and – I did so much research for my book – so many people said that there are so many times that death is a relief, if they’re sick or in pain. One of the things is self-compassion. So no, you’re allowed to think anything and you shouldn’t blame yourself nor should anyone blame you. So is your advice for friends and family to address it head on?

[8:25-8:45] Lee: Own it. Own it. But empathize, don’t sympathize. I, like you, did not want to be that woman in the grocery store that people were like, “Oh, that poor woman.” I don't want anyone's pity, but I wanted people to say, “that sucks. What happened to you, that sucks, and I'm here.” And once you give somebody permission to say that, then the floodgates are open.

[8:46-9:16] Sheryl: So let’s talk about the other two pillars, faith. How did faith help you?

Lee: So I was really pissed off at God. I mean Bob and I were both raised in a Christian faith that we don’t wear a religion on our sleeves, but I think when you’re given a faith, what a time to use it, right? It’s a time to ignite that belief, because there are just things that are bigger than us and I’ve seen that in hospitals, I’ve talked to many other families. Miracles happen. And I wanted to believe in a miracle, and I didn’t want anyone else or any physician to tell me I couldn’t, until I was ready to come to terms with what happened.

[9:17-9:42]: So faith in different ways, and that means all different things for different people. But I have seen soldiers in hospitals who don’t believe, but I've watched that nurse hold it for them and say maybe you don't feel like talking to God today. I will never forget this one soldier, this young man came in and he had his leg blown off, and he loved to dance. He was a dancer. And she said, “Well, honey I talk to God for you today, and I just here to tell you he got your back today.”

[9:43-10:07]: And maybe if you can do that for somebody in their lowest moment, faith is in all forms.

Sheryl: That’s an amazing thought, because there are moments you can’t. My brother-in-law said he’s still not on speaking terms, right, but you can hold off. So you guys have started a foundation, you met so many families of service members and you talk about the hidden injuries – the PTSD, the brain traumatic, the depression. So what does the Bob Woodruff Foundation do?

[10:08-10:41] Lee: We took the crazy amount of attention we got for our story, we raise money, and we look at the whole landscape. There are 46,000 nonprofits that help that. It’s really hard to navigate. So we take those funds and we make grants, with many strings attached, to those organizations that are working in the areas of working with caregivers – I’m passionate about that, because it’s the whole family that needs to recover, not just the individual. Usually in the areas of unemployment, getting people ready to go back to work, and then certainly in post-traumatic stress and in in mental health, because that’s huge right now.

[10:42-10:54]: So we put people together, we convene people, we’ve created this framework where we need to put everybody together, and that’s a technology solution as well, all the resources out there are so hard for these families.

[10:55-11:25] Sheryl: So you’re helping them, that’s great. So we have this tradition in our family, we usually do it at dinner but we’ll do it now for us, for your best, worst, and grateful moment of today. My best is definitely doing this with you, and getting to share your four legs of the stool with us.

[11:26-11:47] Lee: Well, you stole my best, because it was getting to do this with you today. My worst was that I didn’t have a chance to highlight my hair before I saw you, but that’s alright. I’ll get over that. And then I’m grateful that we can take our story, I’m grateful that in the 10 years since we founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, we’ve given away more than $46 million dollars to help other families heal, and that’s what you’re doing. I’m so proud of you.

[11:48-12:02] Sheryl: I’m so proud of you. Thank you for joining us. Thank you everyone!

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