TUCSON, Ariz. – As residents lined the streets here to bid a bittersweet farewell to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was moved to a renowned rehabilitation hospital in Houston on Friday, she responded to their cheers with a smile and even tears, her doctor said.
“She could hear it,” said Dr. Randall Friese, a trauma surgeon who accompanied Giffords to Texas. “She smiled, and then she actually teared up a little bit. It was very emotional, very heart-wrenching.”
But so was the raw sentiment on the streets of Tucson on Friday, an outpouring of reverence and respect that appeared to bind the battered city together 13 days after a gunman killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat, who was shot through the head, left her hometown with the kind of police motorcade and live TV coverage usually reserved for a head of state.
“We just wanted to come today and say goodbye,” said Dot Jones, 63, her eyes welling with tears as the procession passed.
“In some ways, I don’t think Tucson will ever get over it,” said her husband, John, 63.
Friends, political supporters and a high school special education class clustered outside the hospital complex, waving American flags and flashing thumbs-up signs. “We love you, Gabby!” one woman cried.
Led by a dozen police motorcycles, an ambulance carrying Giffords left University Medical Center at 9:22 a.m. and drove to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where she was transferred onto an air ambulance for the flight to Houston.
In addition to Dr. Friese, Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, her mother, Gloria Giffords, an intensive care nurse and two congressional aides accompanied her.
After the flight landed, a medevac helicopter ferried Giffords to the trauma center at TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital. Doctors there said that the transfer went “flawlessly,” and that Giffords would get her first rehabilitation session the same afternoon.
“She looks spectacular,” Dr. Dong Kim, neurosurgeon in chief, told a news conference. “She looks awake, calm and comfortable.”
Dr. John Holcomb, who heads the medical team, said Giffords will remain in the intensive care unit at least until next week to ensure no infections develop. Doctors then will move her to the hospital’s Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, which specializes in treatment of brain injuries.
Giffords has “great rehabilitation potential,” said Dr. Gerard Francisco. “She’ll keep us busy, and we’ll keep her busy as well.”
Kim said Giffords may require four to six months of speech and physical therapy, although some of it may be as an outpatient.
U.S. Capitol Police have set up extra security at the 119-bed hospital.
Giffords, 40, was shot in the forehead when a gunman opened fire on a crowd that had gathered to meet her outside a Tucson supermarket on Jan. 8. A federal grand jury has charged Jared Lee Loughner, 22, with attempted assassination, among other charges. He will be arraigned in Phoenix on Monday.
On Friday morning, Tucson police blocked traffic at each intersection so Giffords’ motorcade could pass, and throngs of well-wishers waited on nearly every corner. Some cheered, some wept, and some prayed.
“It’s the end of a chapter for us,” said Rick Morey-Wolfe, 37, a hospital contractor. “It’s sad to see her go – this is her town. But we’re happy to see her go somewhere where she can get better.”
Cindy Harrelson, a grandmother of three, leaned on her walker as the motorcade assembled. She said she’s had a tumor in the same region of the brain where Giffords was shot.
“I know what she has to go through, mentally and physically,” said Harrelson. “I’m glad she’s going someplace that’s better for her and her husband.”