By David Nakamura and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 14, 2011; 2:00 PM
TUCSON - Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is showing remarkable improvement as she continues to recover from a gunshot wound to the head, doctors said Friday, and one of her top aides was discharged from the hospital to attend the funeral of a federal judge who was killed in Saturday's shooting rampage.
Giffords is apparently "beginning to carry out more complex sequences of events, more complex sequences of activity, in response to our commands or even spontaneously," said G. Michael Lemole Jr., the chief neurosurgeon at University Medical Center in Tucson. She is also able to open her eyes more frequently, he said.
"We're very encouraged that she continues to make all the right moves in the right direction," he told a news conference. "Obviously, we're very cautious that she makes them at her own pace. But . . . we couldn't have hoped for any better improvement than we're seeing now, given the severity of her injury initially.
Earlier Friday, Ron Barber, 65, Giffords's Tucson district director, was released from the hospital so he could attend the funeral of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, 63. Roll was one of six people fatally shot when a gunman opened fire on Giffords and surrounding aides and constituents Saturday morning outside a Tucson supermarket.
In a statement read by his daughter, Jenny Douglas, Barber thanked hospital staff and a good Samaritan who attended to his wounds at the scene of the shooting.
"Their help has made it possible for me to attend funeral services for Chief Judge John Roll and return home," he said.
"My dad is a hands-on kind of guy, and being in a hospital bed does not suit him," Douglas said. She told the news conference that "it was very important" for him to attend Roll's funeral, even though he underwent surgery two days ago. Another daughter, Chrissy Blake, said their father's departure from the hospital "was both joyous and sad at the same time."
Giffords and Barber were among 13 people wounded in the shooting. The suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was apprehended at the scene and has been charged with five federal counts of murder and attempted murder. He is also likely to face a raft of state charges.
Another Giffords aide who was released from the hospital earlier, Pam Simon, 63, a retired teacher and part-time outreach coordinator, met at Giffords's office with her own good Samaritan, a man who stayed with her until an ambulance arrived on the scene of the shooting. She was shot through the wrist and near the collarbone.
"I did know that Gabby and Ron were down," Simon said. "I didn't know anything else. I was not aware of what the gunman was doing, so I just played dead."
Pointing to a saddle that Giffords keeps in her office, Simon said, "Gabby is going to get back in the saddle. We know how determined she is."
In all, 11 patients have been released from the University Medical Center, including two who were not struck by bullets, and four remain in the hospital's trauma center, said Peter Rhee, the director of emergency care. Three of the remaining patients are in good condition, he said.
"Everybody's doing extremely well," Rhee said. "Everybody seems to be making progress on healing."
The Pima County Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, issued a news release to clarify what took place when deputies first arrived on the scene of the shooting Saturday morning. It said deputies en route were told that "the suspect was being restrained by bystanders." The first officer on the scene "immediately took custody of the suspect, Jared Loughner, and placed him in handcuffs," the statement said.
"While securing Loughner, the following items were removed from Loughner's pockets: two 15-round magazines, a four-inch buck knife, a plastic bag containing currency, a Visa card and Loughner's Arizona driver's license," it said. Another deputy picked up the gunman's weapon, later identified as a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun with an extended clip. Loughner was then taken to a sheriff's department substation.
Police earlier said Loughner fired 31 bullets during the shooting spree. They said a total of four ammunition magazines were recovered, two of them extended clips that could hold at least 30 rounds.
Branigin reported from Washington.