NEW YORK — ABC anchor Bob Woodruff, who suffered serious wounds while traveling in Iraq in January, has nearly recovered from his physical injuries and is undergoing intensive rehabilitation with the aim of returning to his post as soon as possible, one of his brothers said in an interview.
Much of the treatment is focused on restoring his cognitive functions through "thinking processes, talking with therapists," said David Woodruff, the anchor's older brother. "It's exercising the brain."
While Woodruff has made remarkable progress since he was hurt in a roadside explosion, doctors still do not know when he could return to the air, a situation that has left ABC in limbo.
For now, Woodruff's co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, may continue to helm "World News Tonight" alone for the near future, as she has for much of the last three months. While ABC officials appeared poised in March to name morning anchors Charles Gibson or Diane Sawyer to fill in for Woodruff, the staff of "Good Morning America" was told this week to expect that show's anchor team will remain in place through the fall. That's when Katie Couric moves to CBS and ABC executives believe they have a chance to make a run at NBC's top-rated "Today."
It remains unclear whether ABC will tap a replacement for Woodruff before this summer, when Vargas, who is due to have a baby in August, is planning to go on maternity leave. News division executives declined to comment on their plans but are scheduled to hold a meeting next week with the program's staff to discuss its future.
"We all miss Bob very much, but Elizabeth is an anchor on this broadcast and has been holding down the fort and doing an amazing job while he's been out," said Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News Tonight."
"There's not an urgent reason to make a change or alteration," he added. "With Elizabeth here every night, we feel very comfortable. We know at a certain point she needs to go off and have her baby, and that will necessitate a change."
But ABC may make a move before then, especially with the upfront presentation for advertisers this month. So far this season, the second-place newscast has averaged 8.6 million viewers, a drop of 924,000 from the same point last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"We'd clearly like to be doing better," Banner acknowledged.
The situation at "World News Tonight" has preoccupied ABC for much of this year, a period that the network had hoped would be a time of growth for the broadcast. In January, Woodruff and Vargas officially took over a newly expanded version of the program with updated editions for West Coast audiences and frequent anchor reports from the road.
But less than a month later, Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were wounded when the Iraqi military vehicle they were traveling in north of Baghdad was hit by an improvised explosive device, forcing ABC to put those plans on hold.
Vogt, whose injuries were less severe, was released from the hospital in February. But Woodruff sustained shrapnel wounds to the head as well as broken ribs and a broken collarbone and was kept sedated for five weeks.
After being treated at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and then a private facility in New York, the 44-year-old broadcaster returned to his Westchester County home in early April and began outpatient treatment.
"I can't tell you what a blessing it is," he wrote to his ABC colleagues in an e-mail last month. "Though I know there is still a long road ahead, it's nice to be feeling more like myself again -- laughing with family, reading bedtime stories and reminding my kids to do their homework."
ABC News President David Westin, one of the few from the network who has spoken with Woodruff since the attack, visited the anchor and his wife, Lee, for the first time two weeks ago. "You need to be with Bob for only five minutes to marvel at his remarkable progress," he wrote in an e-mail to the staff last week.
Still, he and others stressed that Woodruff would be in rehabilitation for a while.
"He's 100% committed to getting back to work and getting back to where he was before the attack," David Woodruff said. "But he's got a lot of work ahead of him."
For the last three weeks, the anchor has been undergoing vigorous outpatient treatment four to six hours a day, his brother said. Aside from a still-healing shoulder injury, Woodruff has largely recovered from his physical wounds and is now focused on regaining his stamina.
"The real issue with Bob right now is he's tired," his brother said. "His energy level is nowhere near where it was before."
David Woodruff said that the family has been relieved that the anchor, who can once again converse normally, has not suffered the kind of alterations that plague many with head wounds.
"He's emerged from such a serious injury with so much of everything about him intact: his wit, his humor, just his personality," he said.
While Woodruff feels "grateful to be alive," his brother added that the recovery process has been difficult.
"It's stressful," David Woodruff said. "It's hard for guy like Bob to have such a radical change in his life. But you think about the fact he was in this horrific situation that frankly should have cost his life -- it wasn't his time, and we're thankful for that."