Living with Aphasia
Having just been given his dream job of ABC News Anchor, Bob Woodruff was in the prime of his life, personally and professionally when in January, 2006, while reporting on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, he was critically injured by a roadside bomb near Taji, Iraq. In an instant, his life was altered forever. The attack left Bob with a traumatic brain injury.
Bob was kept in a medically-induced come for 36 days to assist his recovery. When he was awoken, he didn’t remember much about the accident; was in extreme pain and knew right away that his cognitive abilities had been severely affected. In addition, the bomb had shattered his jaw and scapula, caused partial blindness and hearing loss. Despite his injuries, he remembers feeling overwhelmingly happy, as he was surrounded by his family and loved ones and simply felt “damn lucky to be alive".
Bob made relatively quick progress in recovering from his physical injuries. But he was left with severe expressive aphasia. Aphasia is the result of damaged brain tissue after an injury. The condition causes communication challenges, but is not a sign of reduced intelligence.
People with aphasia may have problems speaking, understanding speech, using numbers or reading and writing. These problems can range from mild to severe in nature. Aphasia does not affect the ability to think, reason, or understand. Rather, people with aphasia know what they want to say, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words. They may also have a similar inability to understand non-verbal forms of communication such as gestures and facial expressions.
Bob’s aphasia caused major challenges with word-finding and speaking. Where his career had once been built on communication, now remembering even the simplest of words had become extremely difficult.
"I remember how frustrating it could be," says Bob. "I understood what I wanted to say, but being able to express it so others could understand was suddenly a huge challenge," he continues.
Bob had to work extremely hard both with therapists and with his family to re-learn words. Eventually, through study, voracious reading and perseverance, much of his speech returned.
"I compare speaking with aphasia to a different way of driving," says Bob. “Whereas before, you might have been driving straight down the highway to your destination, having aphasia is like encountering a roadblock on the highway, so you have to detour, and find a new route, but eventually you end up where you’re going."
Bob can also relate to the difficulties of living with a ‘hidden’ disability. Immediately after his injury, people had patience with his physical issues, and most people around him knew he had aphasia. But once the physical injuries healed, and much of his speech returned, he found that some people didn’t understand that aphasia is a challenge he continues to live with.
"Life really changes after a brain injury," Bob relates. "And you have to adapt to your new reality – no matter how much of a recovery you make, nobody ever goes back to how they were before – but there is always hope. I know - it’s a long, long road to recovery, often longer and harder than you thought it would be, and sometimes not as good as you wanted – but there is always recovery – I truly believe that,” he continues.
Bob remains hopeful that advances in scientific research in neurology will lead to greater understanding of aphasia and recovery from brain injuries.
"I believe that our knowledge of how the brain works will only grown and that one day we will look back to 2011 and be amazed at how little we knew then – that we are going to learn things we never even imagined – so it’s so important not to give up hope," says Bob.
Bob Woodruff was the special guest speaker at March of Dimes Canada’s Ability & Beyond Gala Fundraising dinner in May, 2011.
"March of Dimes is a great charity that does such great work, and I’m really proud to be associated with them," says Bob.
Bob has won numerous awards including three Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award, an Alfred I. Dupont Award, and the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism. In addition to continuing to report for ABC News, Bob also anchors Planet Green’s Focus Earth with Bob Woodruff, a weekly newscast devoted to environmental issues.
He remains devoted to helping soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Bob started his own charitable foundation reMIND, to help veterans living with the effects of such an injury.