Friends, husband witness 'the most incredible moment': Giffords opens eyes

At the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, President Obama said that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time after his visit.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011

At first, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes just a tiny bit. Then she opened them again, and again. With female friends from Congress and her husband huddled around her hospital bed - just moments after President Obama paid a visit Wednesday night - Giffords opened her eyes a total of five times and reached for her husband's hand, according to the people in the room.

It was the first time she had opened her eyes since the shooting that wounded her Saturday outside a Tucson grocery store. "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.

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.

When Giffords opened her eyes the first time, her husband and the doctor in the room reacted with shock. Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, asked Giffords if she could give a thumbs up. She didn't at first. But after a few minutes, she was able to reach toward him. "Her whole arm went up in the air," Wasserman Schultz said. "She started touching his wedding ring." By the time Giffords opened her eyes for a fifth time, she was able to keep them open for more than 30 seconds, Wasserman Schultz said. The group was in the room 10 to 15 minutes.

When Obama departed from his prepared text to announce in his speech that Giffords had opened her eyes, 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."

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