SHERYL SANDBERG: You’re an incredible example of resilience. You and your husband Bob, [who was] co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight, wrote this amazing book. Bob was reporting on the war in Iraq and was critically injured by a roadside bomb. He survived, had a long road to recovery, and together you wrote this book, In an Instant.
LEE WOODRUFF: It’s a story of healing and coming out the other side.
SS: So you were at Disney World of all places. You were with your four children and you got the call no one wants: that Bob was gravely injured. He then spent 36 days in a medically induced coma, which had to have been just horrific. How did you endure those 36 days?
LW: You’re in this altered state. We called it the vortex. In the vortex, nothing else mattered other than what would happen to him. The prognosis was grim. I was basically [told] “Number one: he might not live” and “Number two: be prepared, have a plan B, because he probably won’t ever be able to work, talk.” They were talking about acute-care nursing homes. I stayed in this world of hope.
SS: Were you able to stay hopeful the whole time?
LW: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. I chose not to go on Google and look at traumatic brain injury—I knew that I would never sleep again. I let everybody around me talk to the doctors. I didn’t want to look at the scans. There were rocks all over his head. They’d cut his skull off. There was a rock right on his carotid artery that they didn’t know how they were going to get out. I just didn’t want to look. I thought, if I just keep showing up—you talk about that too, so beautifully in [your book] Option B. The little moments where you just tell yourself that I’m going to be present. Because if I toggle forward it’s frightening, and if I toggle backward it’s so sad.
SS: His recovery was a miracle for your family, but it was also long and grueling, and it was a long road [for him] to regain speech and movement, and it put you in a caregiver role. The title of my book [about coping with the sudden death of her husband] comes from my friend Phil who said option A is not available, so we’re just going to kick the shit out of option B. This had to have been a complete option B for you. How did you and Bob learn to find your way through it?
LW: As a writer, I just needed to start making sense of this. I didn’t know if he would live, so I wanted to write what [happened] for the kids. And then if he did live, I knew as a journalist he would have a thousand questions. And one of his neurosurgeons, whom I loved, said, “Hey, you’re a writer. Somebody needs to write a book about this. Thousands of service members are coming through these military hospitals and nobody in America has any idea that these injuries are happening.” You can’t rewind the tape, right? But you can take the bad thing and just do something good with it; you can use your story to maybe ease the way for someone else. You asked me how did I get through those 36 days, and even the year beyond [because when] he woke up, he woke up in this really sweet way—telling everybody that they were beautiful—but he was missing all of his words. He had to slowly learn all that again. I realized there were kind of four legs of my stool and they all started with F. It was family, friends, faith and funny.
SS: Writing was clearly amazing for your recovery. I love the idea that you were documenting for Bob. When did you shift into writing a book?
LW: Boy, I had an 800-page document when I finished. Someone approached us and asked if I’d ever want to do a book. I still had the neurosurgeon’s words in my head, and I thought, Well I have this 800-page document. When you’re [sitting with someone who has] a brain injury, they tell you to just talk to them. So I would just tell him the stories of our life like, “We started our marriage in Beijing, China.” 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.
SS: In some ways, when there’s injury, not death, it can be harder because…when the person’s still alive, [people] don’t know exactly what to say. Do you think people should address it or not address it?
LW: It’s such a great question. Own it. But empathize, don’t sympathize. I, like you, did not want to be that woman in the grocery store—“Oh that poor woman.” I didn’t want anyone’s pity, but I wanted people to say, “What happened to you, that sucks. And I’m here.”
SS: How does your faith help you?
LW: Well, I was really pissed off at God. Bob and I were both raised in a Christian faith and we don’t wear religion on our sleeves, but I think when you are given a faith, what a time to use it, right? There are things that are bigger than us. I’ve seen that in hospitals, I’ve talked to many other families. Miracles happen. I wanted to believe in a miracle and I didn’t want any physician or anybody to tell me I couldn’t until I was ready to come to terms with what had happened. Faith means different things for different people. I’ve seen soldiers in hospitals who don’t believe, but I’ve watched [their] nurses hold it for them. I’ll never forget: This soldier came in; this young man got his leg blown off and he was a dancer. He loved to dance and [one of the nurses] said, “Well honey, I talked to God for you today. And I’m just here to tell you he’s got your back.”
SS: That’s an amazing thought. That it’s not just you keeping faith, because there are moments you can’t. So you guys started a foundation. What does the Bob Woodruff Foundation do?
LW: We took the crazy amount of attention we got for our story, raised money and looked at the whole landscape. There are 46,000 nonprofits that help vets. It’s hard to navigate. We take those funds and make grants, with many strings attached, to organizations that are working with caregivers. I am passionate about that because it’s the whole family that needs to recover, not just the individual.
SS: We have a tradition in my family: [what’s] your best, worst and grateful moment of today. My best is doing this with you and getting to share your four legs of the stool with everyone. Your best, worst and grateful?
LW: 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. And then what I’m most grateful for? I’m grateful that in the 11 years since we founded the foundation, we’ve given away more than $46 million to help other families heal.
This is an edited version of a Q&A Sheryl Sandberg did with Lee Woodruff as part of the Lean In Live series.