Triumph Over Tragedy

Jan 8, 2012 7:55 PM

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords continues her miraculous recovery

TUCSON - Gabrielle Giffords - the congresswoman who was just trying to meet the people she represents, was shot in the head at point blank range on January 8, 2011, but her story manifested into one nothing short of miraculous.

Hundreds of thousands of people have followed her every step, her every move. The odds were against her, but she's come out on top.

"We had no control over the trajectory that bullet took and that was critical to her case, because, if it had passed through the geometric center of the brain, through some of those critical areas that determine your being awake or not being awake, she might never have woken up," said Dr. Michael LeMole, the UMC surgeon who operated on Giffords the day of the shooting.

"Make no mistake - her injury was a penetrating, through and through bullet wound to the brain," he said. "This was not a glancing blow off the skull, this was not a flesh wound to the scalp, this was an injury to the brain."

It's been a year of tragedy and triumphs for Gabrielle Giffords. In the days that followed January 8, doctors at UMC stayed cautiously optimistic as the congresswoman fought to stay alive.

"The fact that she came in and was able to interact with us, squeeze her hand to our simple command, that was so, so important, because it told us we were dealing with someone who was not only salvageable but really had some higher cognitive function," Dr. LeMole said.

There were surgeries - on her eye sockets and her skull, and Giffords' grueling recovery process started with the smallest of milestones.

"A few minutes after we left her room, and some of her colleagues from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," President Obama said to a cheering crowd gathered at UA's McKale Center on January 12. "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time."

"The day for example she opened her eye - very important day," Dr. LeMole said. "It meant she was starting to process her world and interact with it, little things, like her husband saying she would take off his ring and flip it around."

As Tucsonans and the rest of the nation wondered what the future held for the woman once dubbed "The cheeriest member of Congress," Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, was documenting his wife's slow, but miraculous, recovery.

In their book "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope" he writes:

"We knew that nine out of ten people shot in the head don't survive, so Gabby was a success story just by virtue of still being in the world."

Since the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and language, Giffords has had to re-learn the basics most of us take for granted. How to sit, how to walk, how to speak.

The bullet that pierced her brain has left her with expressive aphasia.

"She hears you, she understands you, she wants to find the word, she knows what she wants to say, can't really find the words to say it," Dr. LeMole said.

To say she's come a long way is an incredible understatement.

She got a standing ovation, cheers, and hugs from her colleagues in Congress when she made the trip to Washington DC to vote on raising the debt ceiling.

And over Thanksgiving, as another example of how Giffords continues defying the odds, she served dinner to troops at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. It was a chance to spend some time with the constituents she loves so much, a chance to give back to the men and women at D-M.

The future is still uncertain. Will she regain the use of her right side? Will her speech and thought processes improve? Will she run for congress again?

One thing is for sure: "Gabrielle Giffords is too tough to let this beat her," husband Mark Kelly said during an interview with ABC News.

"The fact that she survived, survived to be interactive with those she loves and now surviving to take on higher levels of function is really, really amazing," Dr. LeMole said.

And while the road ahead will include obstacles, and hardship, Giffords says she's determined to come home, to serve the people of Tucson once again. In an audio message released late last year, Giffords spoke directly to the people of Tucson:

"Hello this is Gabby Giffords. I miss you, I miss Tucson, the mountains, blue skies, even the heat. I'm getting stronger. I'm getting better. It has been a hard year - for all of us.

"Thinking of that day makes me sad. Six people died. Six innocent people. So many people hurt. There is lot to say. I will speak better. I want to get back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor.

"My staff is there to help you. They keep me informed on your behalf. I miss you, I miss home. I will see you real soon. Thank you."

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