The Power of Friendship Over Grief

Lee Bloom and Melanie Woodruff take friendship to a new level.

Lee Bloom and Melanie Woodruff take friendship to a new level.

Re-Posted from Oprah Magazine.

Bob Woodruff and David Bloom, two well-known TV journalists, and their wives, Lee and Melanie, had that rare thing, a perfect two-couple friendship. But when both men became casualties of the war they were covering, Lee and Melanie learned the amazing extent to which the worst of times can bring out the best in a friend.

By Nancy Doyle Palmer

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Melanie Bloom (left) and Lee Woodruff. “Spot on, it was like we had known each other our whole lives,” says Melanie of the night they met.

Melanie Bloom was running late, as usual. Her husband called from their table at the black-tie charity dinner she was racing to. “Hurry up,” he said. “You’re about to meet your new best friend.”

The Blooms were seated with Bob and Lee Woodruff. “Spot on, it was like we had known each other our whole lives,” says Melanie of the night nine years ago in Washington, D.C. “Instant rapport,” Lee agrees. The two women rearranged the chairs so they could sit next to each other while their husbands, David Bloom, an NBC White House correspondent, and Bob Woodruff, the ABC justice correspondent, were left to fend for themselves.

David and Melanie Bloom in the early years.

David and Melanie Bloom in the early years.

Melanie and Lee had a lot in common. Three years apart—Mel was 35 and Lee 38 when they met—both were married to up-and-coming, extremely driven network TV correspondents. And each had two children, with more on the way—amazingly, both ending up with twin girls. It may have been their differences, however, that made them work so well together. “In our dynamic duo, I was the Cagney to Mel’s Lacey, the Rhoda to her Mary, the Rizzo to her doe-eyed Sandy,” Lee writes in her new book, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, coauthored with Bob. “There was an innocence about Mel that made me want to protect her.” While Lee worked in public relations, Melanie put her energies into volunteering at her girls’ school. “Lee is an adrenaline junkie and thrives on controlled chaos,” says Melanie. “She’s happiest multitasking, rushing off to her son’s soccer game, then on to a dinner party, adjusting her daughter’s hearing aids—and keep in mind she’s been up since 4 A.M. My idea of bliss is a snow day when we can turn off the phones and hunker down.” Within each marriage, there was a similar yin-yang. When Bob Woodruff is asked the best way to describe how he and Melanie differed from David and Lee, he answers, “Uh, we’re mellow?”

Bob and Lee Woodruff

Bob and Lee Woodruff

Living only ten minutes from each other, the couples soon spent as much time together as possible, playing tennis and games of Taboo, gathering for family dinners. With their husbands increasingly on the road, says Melanie, “here was someone who knew what it was like to be alone, to handle life decisions and tuck in everyone at night without having him there.”

Although the Woodruffs relocated to London in 2000 because Bob was working as a foreign correspondent, two years later, the families reunited in New York City when both men became anchors—David at NBC’s Weekend Today show and Bob for ABC’s weekend World News Tonight. As hard-core journalists, however, they still shared a passion for covering challenging stories in the field, and when the United States went to war in Iraq, each said yes to becoming embedded with American troops for their respective networks. Again Melanie and Lee found themselves together many weekends, this time in their suburban Westchester homes. In an eerie and tragic symmetry, two calls in the dead of night would change their lives and bind them together forever.

David Bloom in Iraq.

David Bloom in Iraq.

The first call came to Lee, on April 6, 2003, soon after midnight. It was from Elena Nachmanoff, a vice president of NBC News, who hadn’t been able to get hold of Melanie and knew she and Lee were friends. “The first thing I said to Lee,” Elena recalls, “was, ‘Your husband is fine, but something is wrong with David Bloom and we need to speak to Melanie.'” David had suffered a pulmonary embolism caused by deep vein thrombosis that developed while riding cramped in his “Bloom Mobile”—a specially outfitted tank he’d conceived with satellite capability to broadcast from the front lines as troops began to close in during the 2003 assault on Baghdad. Lee dialed Melanie’s private number, woke her up, and told her something had happened to David and to expect a call from NBC. She also told her she was on the way. As Lee made the 20-minute drive to her friend’s house, Elena called back, and Lee asked what she was about to walk into. “Oh, Lee,” Elena said. “He’s dead.”

Inside, Melanie was lost in shock. “I literally didn’t believe what had happened,” she says now, “but I have this comforting image of Lee coming right up to me, taking my face in her hands with those green eyes of hers almost glowing, willing me to get a grip, pulling me back into reality, insisting, ‘This is real, David has died, this is going to be okay, and you’re going to be all right.'”

The Bloom Family in 2002.

The Bloom Family in 2002.

Shifting into high gear, Lee took on the persona she calls the General. Elena remembers it well: “She told Melanie, ‘We’re going to make calls, figure out what you’re going to tell your family, his family, the kids. Then we will break down, and get through this together.’ And she didn’t let go of her for weeks and months. She never stopped.”

When Bob Woodruff reached Melanie that first night from Iraq, she wept and asked him to come home. “I thought she had the right to ask,” says Lee. “It had never occurred to me. But she was petrified for him, and she just wanted all of us to be a family, and see him and hug him, and for her girls to be able to see him.” Bob left his military unit and immediately returned to New York, where days later he served as a pallbearer for David’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Hours after David’s death, Bob discovered a message he’d left him, relayed from the ABC news desk. “Tell him to stay safe,” David had said, “and keep his head down.”

As the inevitable quiet came in the wake of David’s death—days that Melanie now recalls brought “a fresh hell”—Lee was there, too. But the intense periods of grief eventually gave way to the gentler, lighter moments reminiscent of the early days of their friendship.

Bob Woodruff in

Bob Woodruff in Iraq.

They were sharing one of their long and easy phone calls almost three years later, on January 28, 2006, as Lee sat by the pool at Disney World watching her kids swim. She told Melanie she could see the Bloom family’s favorite hotel at the resort just across the water. Bob was off in Iraq again. By now he’d been named coanchor of ABC’s World News Tonight after the untimely death of Peter Jennings, and weeks into the job, he was on an assignment that had him riding with the Iraqi army in an American-Iraqi convoy.

Lee and Melanie finished chatting and eventually went to bed. This time when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was for Melanie. ABC, she was told, was trying to reach Lee. After providing the name of her friend’s hotel, Melanie waited 20 minutes to call her. By then Lee had received word that her husband and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, had been injured when a roadside bomb exploded next to the tank they were riding atop of. Both had suffered head injuries. Bob’s was particularly serious. The men were to be airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Bob Woodruff after his injury.

Bob Woodruff after his injury.

Hours later the two women were on a plane flying across the Atlantic. “Lee and I huddled together, holding hands, talking,” says Melanie, “and I told her, ‘If Bob doesn’t make it, look at me, because I am the worst-case scenario. I made it, and you will make it.”

In the days and weeks ahead, Lee would watch her husband hover between life and death in a drug-induced coma to reduce brain swelling and undergo numerous operations. She would stay by his side at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was moved, and hear prognoses from doctors that included severe and possibly permanent impairment. Melanie’s constant support and presence during this time, Lee says, was “her glorious payback,” although the help was difficult for her to accept.

“David’s death was hugely consuming,” Lee explains. “I took on my role 100 percent, and it’s one of the things I am most proud of in my life. But Melanie’s was a clean loss. He was gone, like a limb. When Bob was hurt, there was this hideous great unknown. What would he be like? How much would he get back and what would he look like? At least with Mel, I could say, ‘This is going to hurt more than anything you’ll ever go through, but time will be a healer. You and your girls will survive.’ Looking at Bob, I couldn’t believe anyone who told me that I wouldn’t be living in some hell running to the nursing home visiting my mentally disabled husband with four kids in tow.”

Melanie understood all too well, but Lee had already taught her what to say. “I replayed her own words right back to her,” Melanie says. “In the year following David’s death, Lee was so constantly optimistic, and that’s hard to swallow. You want to say, ‘You don’t even know what I’m feeling,’ but she was absolutely right. So when I was telling her she’d be okay and she said, ‘I don’t know that,’ I could answer, ‘You were right in my case, and I know I’m right in yours.'”

The Woodruff Family Recently.

Then on March 6, in what can only be described as a miracle, Bob woke up in his hospital bed with Lee by his side. “Hey, sweetie,” he said, “where have you been?”

Today, after months of rehabilitation, therapy, and hard work, Bob Woodruff is back at ABC News, and except for continuing but improving difficulties with memory, word retrieval, and fatigue, he is himself again. He still remembers, after the blast, seeing his own body from above, bathed in a strong white light. “In 2003 David approached the line of living and dying and continued forward into death,” he says, “and I entered the same line and somehow bounced back. We were equally about as close as possible to the two different directions, and I’m still kind of shocked by it, why one family was spared and not the other.”

Some friendships might not have survived the glaring disparity in outcome. “To be honest,” Lee says, “I think Mel felt nothing but joy. I know there would have been some black piece buried deep in my heart, that I would feel bitter sometimes, but I know she didn’t.”

Melanie agrees that bitterness and jealousy have never crossed her mind. She does recall, though, how she felt at the first sight of Bob in the hospital in Germany. “When I saw the extent of his injuries, I just crumbled, and wanted to throw my arms around him. And in that one moment, I wished it could have been Dave, and there could have been this hope. I had a vision of David in my arms when his body was in his casket. It was really very profound, all these emotions jostling together, and I just collapsed and had a good cry.” But, she adds, “it would have been too cruel for Bob to be taken as well. He is so important to us, too. The hardest thing for a child is to lose a parent, and Bob has been a real father figure to our girls out of his love and friendship with David.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw, a close friend of both families, was riding his bike last summer when he ran into Bob outside a favorite local restaurant. “Bob was looking well and just standing there waiting for Mel, Lee, and the kids to come have dinner together,” he says, “and I thought, ‘This is the way life is supposed to be—’it had almost a fifties quality to it. These were two really attractive couples, with Lee and David as the alphas, charging through life and having fun doing it, and David is suddenly taken out of the equation, Lee and Bob move in and fill the vacuum as best they can, then Bob gets hurt and Mel moves in…sort of a relay team of life.”

Melanie and Lee certainly know they can depend on each other. “We have walked through fire together in a way no friends should have to go through,” says Lee. “If we were close before this, we are unbreakable now. We’ll probably end up in a nursing home together. Having a friend like Mel takes away the fear of old age, takes away the fear of ever being alone.”

Nancy Doyle Palmer is a screenwriter who lives in Washington, D.C., and writes for Washingtonian Magazine.

From the April 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

For more on the Woodruff’s Foundation for wounded veterans see: The Bob Woodruff Foundation. You will find the Woodruffs #1 NY Times Bestselling Book, Here: In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing.

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