By Anne E. Kornblut
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."
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.
"And then she finally opens her eyes and you could she was like desperately trying to focus and it took enormous strength from her," the New York senator said. "And Mark could just - can't believe it. I mean, he's so happy. And we're crying because we're witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us."
Kelly next asked Giffords if she could give a thumbs up, Wasserman Schultz said. She didn't at first. But after a few minutes, she was able to reach toward him.
"And then instead of giving the thumbs up, she literally raises her whole arm. ... It was unbelievable," Gillibrand said. "And then she reaches out and starts grabbing Mark and is touching him and starts to nearly choke him - she was clearly trying to hug him. ...
"And then Mark said, you know, 'Touch my ring, touch my ring.' And she touches his ring and then she grabs his whole watch and wrist," Gillibrand continued. "And then the doctor was just so excited. He said, 'you don't understand, this is amazing, what's she's doing right now, and beyond our greatest hopes.' "
By the time Giffords opened her eye for a fifth time, she was able to keep it open for more than 30 seconds, Wasserman Schultz said. The doctor began sending a message on his BlackBerry, the lawmakers said, while Giffords's parents, who were also in the room, wept.
The lawmakers stayed in the room for 10 to 15 minutes.
When Obama departed from his prepared text to announce in his speech that Giffords had opened her eye, it became one of the most rousing applause lines. He did not get into details, except to say that her colleagues and husband had witnessed the moment.
Recounting it several hours later, Wasserman Schultz was audibly emotional. Struggling to explain how Giffords had taken such a remarkable turn for the better that night, she said, "It was the power of friendship."
"It was just - really, it felt like a miracle. It felt like we were watching a miracle. ... Just the strength that you could see just flowing out of her to get - it was like she was trying to will her eyes open," Wasserman Schultz said. "You could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband."