Tucson shootings: Giffords staffers also struggle to heal, inspired by her progress

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 4:03 PM

The congresswoman wears a helmet designed with colors of the Arizona flag when she goes to therapy. With it off, her friends say, she looks like herself. Her hair is growing back; the wounds on her head are healing.

She listens, smiles and frowns at appropriate moments. She speaks single words even though she cannot yet carry on a conversation.

The friends who've come to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's room at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston say she's getting better every day. They can tell that she recognizes them; her eyes brighten when they enter, and sometimes she tears up when they leave.

Healing proceeds in small steps - not just in the hospital room but also in Giffords's office in Tucson. Her staff tends to business while fitting in visits to therapists. The office of an aide slain in last month's shootings sat vacant until recently, his colleagues too devastated to assign it to another staffer.

Giffords's staff believes she will fully recover. Each visitor brings back news of familiar gestures and words of recognition.

"We are like a family, and this was uncharted territory," said C.J. Karamargin, the congresswoman's communications director. "In 200 years of representative government, no congressional staffer had ever been killed in the line of duty before. Never before had a female member of Congress been the target of an assassination attempt."

Giffords has not been told yet of her staff's pain. Doctors advised shielding her from the larger trauma of the shootings, the deaths of six and all of the injuries.

Inside Giffords's hospital room this month, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron was stunned. Only weeks before, her friend had been shot through the head. Now, Giffords was singing verses of Don McLean's "American Pie" with her family.

Yet shortly afterward, Aaron noticed that Giffords struggled to say something and couldn't find the right word.

Aaron took her friend's hand: "I said, 'Gabby, it's okay. Breathe. Just breathe.' I wanted to let her know that this too shall pass and she will be okay."

Giffords's ability to sing while still struggling to speak is one of the mysteries of traumatic brain injury. The brain function associated with singing centers on the right hemisphere; speaking comes largely from the left, where Giffords was shot.

Therapists are working intensely to help Giffords regain her speech. Those who know Giffords best identify with her frustrations.

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