Giffords reaches 'major milestone' in recovery

Doctors treating Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said Thursday she is showing more positive signs as she recovers from being shot. They say her breathing tube may be removed in the coming days.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 2:27 PM

TUCSON - Doctors treating Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said Thursday she has reached "a major milestone" medically with her ability to open her eyes and seemingly respond to her surroundings as she recovers from a gunshot wound to the head.

In a news conference at University Medical Center in Tucson, the doctors said they were pleased that Giffords (D-Ariz.) opened her unbandaged left eye "spontaneously" Wednesday night in response to the presence of friends from Congress, and they said they were glad that President Obama disclosed the development in his speech shortly afterward at a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shootings at a Giffords constituent event.

G. Michael Lemole Jr., the hospital's chief neurosurgeon, and Peter Rhee, the head of emergency care, said Giffords since then has also been able to sit on the edge of her bed and dangle her legs over the side, move both of her arms and legs and open both of her eyes.

"This is a major leap forward," Lemole said. "This is a major milestone for her, and we're hoping she crosses through many more."

Rhee said Giffords, 40, is "becoming more and more alert . . . and she's making much more spontaneous movements as we have completely stopped all the medications that might blunt her mental status."

"She's starting to become aware of her surroundings," Lemole said. "And that's a very important step on her next move forward."

The doctors said removal of her breathing tube would be the next major milestone, because then they could see whether Giffords can talk and, if so, assess her verbal skills. Rhee said the breathing tube could be taken out in the next few days and that doctors are "optimistic" that they can avoid having to perform a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure to create an opening in the neck to the trachea, or windpipe.

Lemole said he was present when Giffords opened her left eye spontaneously when her friends from Congress were in the room with her immediately following a visit Wednesday night from Obama. He said that was different from previous times when she opened her eye in "response to stimulation" as doctors deliberately woke her up. Among those visiting her at the time were Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"I think it was a combination perhaps of the unexpected but familiar that really prompted her to open her eyes and look around," Lemole said. "And that's important . . . because it implies that not just those parts of the brain that process commands are there, but the parts of the brain that let us awake from sleeping, our arousal center. Those are starting to work spontaneously."

He said he heard that Giffords opened her eyes later Wednesday night "with nothing more than the TV on" in her room. He said it might have been tuned to the memorial event at which Obama delivering a stirring eulogy but that he was not sure.

"We have seen the eyes begin to track," Lemole said later. "We're just starting to see those signs" that reflect "a level of alertness." He said Giffords also has "used her hand to communicate" with her family members. "I think there is that communication going on."

Rhee said Giffords has made further progress Thursday. "She has vision," he said. "Her eye stays open for longer periods of time. . . . You can tell she can see."

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