On January 8, US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at close range outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. She was shot through the brain and now, at week 16 of her recovery, doctors at her Houston, Texas rehabilitation facility believe that she's in the top one percent of patients recovering from this injury. She is married to Irish American astronaut Mark Kelly.
She was one of the victims of the Tucson shootings, carried out by Jared Loughner. His killing spree left six people dead including Giffords' aide, Gabe Zimmerman, federal judge John Roll, and nine-year-old Christina Green.
Doctors were forced to remove a large chunk of Giffords' skull in order to relieve swelling. The Congresswoman is taking part in hours of speech therapy as she was shot through the left side of the brain, which controls language. However, slowly but surely she is regaining her ability to speak.
Giffords' chief of staff Pia Carusone explained to Newsday that the Congresswoman now speaks in single words or declarative phrases such as "love you," "get out," "I miss Tucson," and her goal to "walk a mountain." When Giffords was given the go ahead to travel to support her husband at the final launch of the Endeavour shuttle she responded with "awesome."
It will be a slow recovery. Her husband, NASA astronaut, Mark Kelly admitted, "I can't say I notice improvement every day but I can every few days."
Press coverage of her recovery has been minimal with no images released so far. Her team, including her doctors, staff, husband and nurses seem to agree that Giffords will decide herself when is the right time to release information and images.
Her team realized that her recovery will be slow. Carusone said, "It's unfair to set expectations on her in any way. We all want the best. We want her to make the best recovery. Would a triumphant return be amazing? Yes. But first of all, her close friends and family will take anything." They are simply grateful that she survived what could have easily been a fatal accident.
Sixteen weeks on, Gifford can walk. In fact this week she walked up the stairs on the jet that would bring her to Cape Canaveral. Her doctor Gerard Francisco, the physciatrist and chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann works with Giffords five days a week.
The damage the bullet did is all on the left side of Giffords’ brain. Carusone said "Her left side is perfect. She can do whatever you can do." However, the right side of her body needs work.
Gifford pushes a shopping cart up and down the corridors of the hospital as an exercise in using the correct muscles. She also plays indoor bowling and golf. Her doctors and nurses are focusing on making sure that she does not develop muscular habits on her left side while compensating for her injuring.
Her staff maintain that her attack has not dampened her spirits. "She's the boss," her husband says and her doctor agrees. Francisco said, "She shows a lot more independent right now - that's what's emerging…She's her own person."
When Gifford first arrived at the rehabilitation clinic on January 21 one of the first things she said was, "What's happening to me?" It was explained to Giffords that she had been shot; however, they omitted to tell her that six others had lost their lives. Giffords soon found out the truth when her husband was reading The New York Times aloud to her. Giffords noticed that he had skipped a paragraph in the article and grabbed the paper from his hands and read about the six deaths.
Giffords grieved for many weeks repeating, "So many people, so many people" and "no-no-no-no-no."
Her nurse Kristy Poteet described it as "she was thinking of it like she couldn't believe it ... She kept saying 'I want so bad' and she was trying to talk about it. But it was too many thoughts in one."
For this reason Kelly still hasn't told Giffords that her friends and colleagues Gabe Zimmerman and Judge John Roll as well as a nine-year-old girl were among the victims. Kelly wants Giffords to be able to articulate her emotions as they come.
"'We have all the times in the world, there's no rush,' I tell her. 'I have a lot of patience, so just take your time,'" says Kelly.
For now, Giffords resides in a high security wing of the rehab facility sheltered from the press and the reality of what happened in January. Her staff and the select hospital staff who work with her check their phones at the door and all guests are signed-in in the lobby.
Her room is filled with family and staff. Her parents Gloria and Spencer have hardly left her side since she was shot.
Kelly asked Giffords what could make her situation as normal as possible. Giffords said working. So every day her staff brings her articles and office memos about the work they are doing.
Although Kelly has been in training for the Endeavour launch, he pops by every morning to have his coffee and visits in the evening to talk about their days. He even takes naps in her twin-sized bed and plays scrabble, making-up words which makes her laugh.
When Giffords neurologist Dr. Dong Kim is asked about Giffords future she thumped his heart with his fist. "I feel it here. She's still got a ways to go. I think she's going to get there. I keep saying that."
Kim continued "For somebody with that kind of injury, we start with, 'Are you even going to come out of the coma'... much less 'what are they going to be doing later?'" He maintains that Giffords "is maybe in the top one percent of patients in terms of who far she's come, and how quickly she's gotten there. I think the question then becomes, how far is she going to go?"
In May, Giffords will have her final operation to repair her skull; however, Kim envisages that she will remain in rehab for the foreseeable future. Some days Giffords is down and fears she's going to be in hospital forever, but her husband soon cheers her on.
He said, "When I tell her that she's not going to be in a wheelchair forever, she believes that ... Right now she gets up and takes a couple of steps. I think she'll probably use a wheelchair for I don't know, maybe another three months.
"She knows she's going to be a lot better ... how she's improving all the time.
"I talk to her about where she wants to go, but because it's difficult for her to articulate certain things, I'm not sure.”
He wonders, "What is her recovery going to look like? Where is she going to be in a year? Where is she going to be in three years? But I don't think anybody knows."
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