Surrounded by friends, Giffords opens one eye and reaches for husband's hand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) talk about the moment Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:07 AM

At first, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eye just a tiny bit. Then she opened it again, and again.

With female friends from Congress and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, huddled around her hospital bed Wednesday night just moments after President Obama paid a visit, Giffords opened her unbandaged eye a total of five times and reached for her husband's hand, according to the people in the room.

The Arizona Democrat has responded to simple commands from her doctors in the days since she was shot in the head at close range during a constituent meet-and-greet. But she remains mostly sedated and in intensive care.

Her loved ones said their unexpected interaction with her Wednesday night was deeply moving, and was hailed by the doctors in the room as a significant step forward.

"We all started crying," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in a phone interview from Air Force One later Wednesday night. "Other than the birth of my children, it was the most incredible moment I have ever had."

Also in the room were Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who were talking to Giffords and encouraging her to get well before she opened her eyes.

Gillibrand urged Giffords to "get better," calling her by her nickname, Gabby. Wasserman Schultz told her that she hoped she would get well quickly enough to vacation with her family in New Hampshire next summer.

"We just were so excited, so we were telling her how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength," Gillibrand told reporters on the return flight from Tucson to Washington. "And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better. And we were holding her hand and she was responding to our hand-holding.

"She was rubbing our hands and gripping our hands so we could - she could really - we knew she could hear and understand what we were saying and she moved her leg, and so we knew she was responding. And the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes, literally."

Having just flown in from Washington with Obama to attend a memorial service, the visitors did not expect Giffords to make one of the most affirmative gestures of her recovery so far.

"One of her eyes is covered with a bandage because it was damaged in the gunfire," Gillibrand said. "So her eye is flickering. And Mark sees this and gets extremely excited. And we didn't - I didn't know what that meant. And so he said, 'Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes.' And he's really urging her forward. And the doctor is like perking up and everyone is coming around the bed."

Gillibrand said Giffords struggled for perhaps 30 seconds, trying to get her unbandaged eye open.

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