March 12, 2011 in Nation/World

Healing hopes

Ramit Plushnick-Masti Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Dr. Gerard Francisco, left, speaks and Dr. Dong Kim and Dr. Imoigele Aisiku, right, listen as they give a medical update on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during a news conference Friday in Houston. Francisco is the head of Giffords’ medical team.
(Full-size photo)

HOUSTON – She can talk, even saying short sentences. With some help, she can walk. She also knows that she was shot.

But for doctors, some of the greatest moments in treating Rep. Gabrielle Giffords occur when her true personality shines through and she shares big grins and excitement over milestones in her recovery from a devastating gunshot wound to the head.

“That’s Gabby. It’s a constant, wonderful thing,” said Dr. Dong Kim, a neuroscientist.

Doctors provided the new details about Giffords’ condition Friday, their first official update since she began intensive rehabilitation in Houston on Jan. 26. Until now, tidbits of information came from friends and family, but the doctors, those with the understanding and knowledge of what each setback and step forward means for long-term recovery, remained tight-lipped.

Kim and two other members of her medical team described several breakthroughs in Giffords’ recovery from her brain injury, saying she has made “leaps and bounds.”

He breathing tube was removed last week, a “fist-pump” moment, said Dr. Imoigele Aisiku, a neurosurgeon. She also can express desires, such as “I’m tired. I want to go to bed.”

Giffords can’t remember the shooting, but her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, has told her about the incident, though it remains unclear whether she knows six people were killed and 12 others injured at the Jan. 8 political event outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz.

The demeanor of the news conference was largely subdued – until the doctors were asked whether Giffords’ personality was starting to surface. Then, the three men grinned and nodded simultaneously. They snickered with affection.

“She has a personality that’s already showing through,” Kim said. “She’s very upbeat, focused on getting better. She hasn’t shown us depression, and she’s just been very forward-looking and even with the speech she’s not showing much frustration.”

That Giffords is showing emotion is especially encouraging because the bullet pierced the front of her head, an area that controls personality. Some people shot in the front may recover their ability to speak but never truly show emotion again, said Dr. Steve Williams, chairman of rehabilitative medicine at Boston University.

While doctors were enthusiastic about Giffords’ progress and Francisco said it was better than they had expected, they refused to commit to her being well enough to travel to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch her husband rocket into space as the commander of the Endeavour space shuttle when it launches on its last mission next month.

Giffords had a piece of her skull removed shortly after the shooting to allow room for brain swelling, and has been wearing a helmet adorned with an Arizona state flag. Doctors said they expect to reattach the skull in May, but she would be able to travel before that happens.

Friends and family say they are planning for her to attend the launch.

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