Many of you may remember the horrific shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona, in January of this year, in which Jared Lee Loughner, a clearly disturbed 22-year-old man, opened fire outside a supermarket and shot 19 people, killing six and seriously wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who received a bullet in the head and was pronounced dead by several media sources. News updates on her recovery have been overwhelmingly positive – perhaps too much so, for someone with such a serious injury – suggesting that she has made astonishing progress, to the point where some are pushing for her to run for the Senate in 2012.
The Arizona Republic has a more realistic, if still encouraging, account of her progress, which suggests that Giffords has come leaps and bounds since the shooting, but is still in a fragile condition. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here are some key snippets:
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is left-handed now… Her handwriting looks different in the letter she recently wrote to her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, than it did the last time he went into space. Giffords’ mother helped her pen the traditional NASA sendoff note two weeks ago. She wrote to her “sweetie pie,” and that part – those words – were the same.
Many other things are different since Giffords’ brain was pierced by a bullet during the shootings near Tucson on Jan. 8. Her hair is short, maybe 2 inches long, says Pia Carusone, her chief of staff, so there are scars on her scalp that show through. Eventually, her hair will cover them. A thin scar across the top of her forehead is healing well and fading, and her face, though sometimes swollen, is otherwise the same as before, Carusone says.
Giffords speaks most often in a single word or declarative phrase: “love you,” “awesome,” even “get out” to doctors in her room at the end of a taxing day. She longs to leave the rehab center, repeating “I miss Tucson” and wheeling herself to the doors at the end of the hall to peer out. When that day comes, Giffords told her nurse, she plans to “walk a mountain.”
Longer sentences frustrate Giffords. She must search her brain for the words she wants, which feels like trying to pull out the name of a familiar face you can’t quite place, her doctors say. Once she builds the sentence in her mind, she speaks clearly and at a normal rate, and can offer as many words as she has the patience to string together. The doctor overseeing her rehabilitation places her in the top 5 percent of patients recovering from this injury.
At the end of week 15, she can stand on her own and walk a little but is working to improve her gait, says Dr. Gerard Francisco, the physiatrist and chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann who works with Giffords five days a week.
Use of her right arm and leg is limited but improving, he says – a common effect of a bullet wound on the left side of the brain. She pushes a grocery cart up and down the hospital halls as therapy, focusing on using the correct muscles, says nurse Kristy Poteet, who has worked with Giffords since she arrived in Houston on Jan. 21. More therapy comes from games of bowling and indoor golf, Poteet says. Giffords used to be right-handed. Maybe she will be again. That answer, like so many others, will come long after week 15.
It’s an at times heart-warming, at times tragic, account of the determination of doctors, family and friends, and the inner strength of a woman who is fighting serious brain trauma to regain a semblance of normality in her life. What’s clear is that Giffords is making enormous progress, but that she’ll never truly be the same – and people should be realistic about further advances in her condition. The woman was shot in the head, for Christ’s sake. It’s remarkable that she’s regained such an astonishing command of her intellect and bodily functions, and that her personality has changed so little (one of the most common consequences of brain trauma is an often substantial change in personality). If she is able to walk, talk and interact with her family normally again, that in itself will be more than 95% of people in her position. We shouldn’t be expecting that she’ll somehow make a miraculous recovery and run for the Senate. It’s comfort enough that she’s got that far – and without being too corny, it’s the perfect Easter story of rebirth, renewal and the tenacity of life in the face of adversity.
Oh, that reminds me – Happy Easter, everyone!