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Those Close to Giffords Share Struggles and Successes of Recovery

As Rep. Gabrielle Giffords begins week 16 of her recovery from brain injury, some of those closest to her told the Arizona Republic that the lawmaker has lost none of her independent spirit or charisma and is gradually learning the details of the shooting that wounded her and killed six people.

The newspaper on Sunday published an insiders’ look at the lawmaker’s recovery based on interviews last week with her husband, Congressional staff, doctors and a nurse at her rehabilitation hospital in Houston.

Dr. Dong Kim, the neurosurgeon who oversees Giffords’ care at TIRR Memorial Hermann, said she “is maybe in the top 1 percent of patients in terms of how far she’s come, and how quickly she’s gotten there. I think the question, then, becomes, how far is she going to go?”

She speaks mostly in single words or declarative phrases but is frustrated by longer sentences, which she needs to construct first in her mind. Once the sentence is formed, she can speak clearly and at a normal rate. Her staff also brings her office memos and articles for her to read, and the plan is to soon start giving her simple House resolutions to read.

Giffords has limited but improving use of her right arm and leg, and she can stand on her own and walk a little, according to Dr. Gerard Francisco, the physiatrist working with Giffords. She’s “pretty close” to walking independently, Kim said.

“She shows a lot more independence right now — that’s what’s emerging,” Francisco said. “She’s her own person.”

Her doctors say she appears to have been spared the depression, personality change, behavior problems and trouble relating to others that can accompany injuries like hers.

Kim plans to replace the missing portion of her skull with a cranial implant in May.

“I can’t say I notice improvement every day,” said her husband, Mark Kelly, “but I can every few days.”

Giffords is on course to travel to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for Friday’s scheduled launch of the shuttle Endeavor, which will be commanded by Kelly.

“We’re very comfortable with her traveling,” Kim said, while Francisco views it as “an opportunity for us to find out what else we need to work on.”

“It’s not a break,” Francisco added.

It was Kelly who told Giffords last month that people were killed in the attack on her Jan. 8 “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz.

She was looking over his shoulder as he read aloud a New York Times article about her. When he skipped a paragraph about the six killed and many others wounded in the attack, she snatched away the newspaper. It was then that he realized how well she was able to read.

“So many people, so many people,” Giffords repeated as Kelly comforted her.

Nurse Kristy Poteet said she has found Giffords saying “no” over and over.

“She was thinking of it like she couldn’t believe it,” Poteet said. “She kept saying, ‘I want so bad,’ and she was trying to talk about it. But it was too many thoughts in one.”

Kelly hasn’t told Giffords that the shooting victims included her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, Judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. He said he wants her to get to the point where she doesn’t have to fight so hard to find the right words to express her grief.

“The challenge is she knows what she wants to say, and she knows everything that’s going on around her” but can’t always express it, Pia Carusone, her chief of staff, told the newspaper. “It’s frustrating for her. She’ll sigh out of exasperation.”

Kim made clear that Giffords is far from outpatient rehabilitation, and Carusone said some days Giffords doesn’t believe she will make more progress.

Other days are better.

“When I tell her that she’s not going to be in a wheelchair forever, she believes that,” Kelly said. “Right now she gets up and takes a couple 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.”