At Gabrielle Giffords's bedside, a constant, emotional vigil after Tucson shooting

January 13, 2011

TUCSON - On the second floor of the intensive-care unit, behind a phalanx of police officers and a shuttered glass door, they sit by her bed all day and night, a rotating circle that includes her husband, her mother and father, her chief of staff, and her rabbi.

They talk to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hoping she can comprehend what they are saying. They take note of every movement of her fingers and legs. They celebrate when she opens her eyes. They sing and pray. They weep.

From the moment a gunman critically wounded Giffords, this city has held a 24-hour-a-day vigil for the six people killed and 13 injured in Saturday's spasm of violence. A shrine of floral bouquets and candles expands by the day, enveloping the entrance to University Medical Center.

Inside the room, amid the humming and beeping of machines monitoring Giffords's condition, her husband and parents and closest aides traverse a treacherous emotional path, balancing each apparently positive development against the knowledge that she may never fully recover.

"Everyone is kind of stranded between a trembling hope and despair," said Stephanie Aaron, Giffords's rabbi.

Giffords's doctors emphasized the positive Thursday. By opening her eyes, the doctors said, the congresswoman had achieved a "major milestone." They described how she has sat on the edge of her bed with help and dangled her legs over the side. She has moved both her arms and legs. She has scratched her nose.

Trauma surgeon Peter Rhee said doctors hope to remove Giffords's breathing tube in the next few days, allowing them to assess whether she can talk.

Since Saturday, much of the nation has been focused on the shootings, the victims who died, the political vitriol, gun control, the path that brought the accused gunman to Giffords's community event that day.

But inside her hospital room, a different reality has unfolded.

President Obama has come and gone. A trio of friends from Congress, including former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, made the pilgrimage to the room, one of them imploring her to wake up so they could get pizza at a favorite restaurant on H Street NW back in Washington.

There are only a handful who are there steadily, a group that includes Mark Kelly, the congresswoman's husband; her father, Spencer, a former tire company owner, and her mother, Gloria, an art historian; her sister, Melissa; and her chief of staff, Pia Carasone, who has described briefing Giffords on office matters even as her boss lies in bed, a bandage over one eye, a breathing tube down her throat.

At the center of the circle is Kelly, an astronaut, red-eyed from lack of rest, hugging visitors, sleeping if he can on a cot by her bed, holding her hand when he's awake, asking the doctors about her condition.

Then asking some more.

"If you wanted a patient advocate, there is no one better than the commander of a space shuttle," said Michael McNulty, Giffords's campaign chairman and close friend, who has spoken to people visiting her room. "He is constantly asking questions."

Aaron, the rabbi at Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, was on a family vacation in Colorado when she learned of the shooting. She sped back to Tucson, where she has spent hours in Giffords's room.

She has recited Hebrew prayers for healing and told the congresswoman that she's radiant, that she's a "woman of valor and courage."

"I talk to her," Aaron said. "I pray and sing and hold her hand."

Outside the hospital, the parking lots have been consumed by more than a dozen television satellite trucks. The shrine has grown with each passing day, as people bring more flowers and balloons and stuffed penguins, the mascot from the Tucson high school Giffords attended.

In one shrub, someone left a sign reading "Never Give Up." In the grass, someone else configured candles in the shape of a peace sign.

A woman played the tune "In the Sweet By and By" on a Chinese percussion instrument as people stopped to take photographs and read the handwritten notes. Some wiped away tears.

"You smell the flowers and it's like a big warm hug," said Tracy Ebeling-Siravo, 45, whose father is a member of Giffords's senior advisory council. "Everyone is pulling for us."

schwartzman@washpost.com horwitzs@washpost.com hedgpethd@washpost.com

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