By Sari Horwitz
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."
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.
The congresswoman has always been a talker. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) remembers how she introduced herself: "She said, 'My name is Gabby and there's a reason for that.' "
Smith said Giffords used her gift for gab last year to help him become the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, on which they both sit as members.
"I've been here 14 years, but she is a very social person who spoke to a lot of fellow members for me, and it made an enormous difference," he said.
When he came to see her in Houston this month, he brought a flag from a group of Navy SEALs that she and Smith had visited last year. After she was shot, the SEALs dedicated a combat mission in Afghanistan to her and sent the flag they carried. It now hangs in her room.
During his visit, Smith found their traditional roles reversed - he did all talking now. He related committee news and assured Giffords that her staff was working hard. He told her how much she was missed on Capitol Hill.
Giffords reached out and hugged Smith. "She teared up when I said that," he said.The initial shock
On the day after Giffords was shot, a group of about 25 people, including staffers and their spouses, gathered at a Tucson home with Kristin Welsh-Simpson, a counselor from the House of Representatives who flew in to help. They were shellshocked, some weeping openly.
Giffords was fighting for her life. Their colleague and director of community outreach, Gabriel Zimmerman, was dead. Two other staffers were in intensive care: district director Ron Barber and community outreach coordinator Pamela Simon. Other staffers and interns had witnessed the shootings.
Questions loomed over the group: Why them? Why now?
Welsh-Simpson told them they might never get an answer. Over the next weeks, she said, they would feel anger, confusion, sadness, but each would react differently. One staffer already was suffering survivor's guilt.
The group decided that Giffords would want them to open their Tucson office at 8 a.m. the next day, but they were unprepared for what faced them.
"The crush of media was unprecedented," Karamargin said. "One day we had 900 media requests come in."
Days later, President Obama came to town, stopping by to see the wounded congresswoman and her staffers. And then the funerals began.
"We were on an emotional roller coaster," Karamargin said.
Welsh-Simpson stayed two weeks, helping anyone who needed to talk.
Working amid the clamoring phones, the thousands of e-mails and an office full of people helped.
"It was comforting to be together," Karamargin said.'Her eyes lit up'
On a recent morning, Michael McNulty, a Tucson lawyer and Giffords's campaign chairman, arrived at her room as she was being wheeled in from speech therapy.
She was wearing the blue, red and yellow helmet, which protects the area where a piece of her skull was removed during surgery. The helmet comes off when she's sitting in her room.
He bent over and kissed her.
"Gabby, I will get in trouble if I didn't tell you that my mother and my sisters send warm greetings," McNulty said. "And Claire. And Stan. And Judy. And Cathy and Katherine and Linda. And Bunny and Mark and Joan . . ."
"The list of people insisting I say hello was ridiculously long," McNulty said later. "And she got how funny that was."
McNulty and his wife, Linda, later brought in sushi and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and Giffords ate unassisted. McNulty set up a slide show.
Giffords seemed captivated by the images on the computer screen. Photographs of the Sonoran Desert and snow-capped mountains in Tucson flashed by, accompanied by music from her favorite local band, Calexico. "Her eyes lit up, and she seemed so into it," McNulty said.
Leaving that night, McNulty felt buoyed. He was hopeful because she was recovering faster than anyone predicted, and he fully expects to see her back in Congress. But he knows an arduous road lies ahead.
Back in his Texas hotel room, McNulty broke down.A difficult return
One afternoon three weeks after the shooting, a small group of Giffords's staffers returned to the crime scene at the Safeway in Tucson. None of them had been back since the killings.
"It was very, very difficult," said Mark Kimble, a Giffords spokesman.
He had been there the morning of the shootings, standing eight feet away from Giffords when the shooter started firing. He saw Giffords and Zimmerman go down.
During the return visit, he walked with his colleagues, Barber and Karamargin, recounting who stood where as the horror unfolded. The Safeway manager came out to see them. Bystanders at the nearby memorial of candles and flowers walked over to comfort them.
"I'm still very fragile," Kimble said later. "But it felt good to go back . . . not like last time, when people were lying all around, injured and worse."
Karamargin had not been there the day of the shootings, but he needed to see the crime scene.
"It was like a light switch being flipped for me," he said. "I needed to have Ron and Mark explain it to me. I needed to know the details."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) knew the healing power of friendship when she visited her friend Giffords in Houston.
Three years ago, Wasserman Schultz underwent seven surgeries for breast cancer.
"Having been through a health-care crisis myself," she said, "I knew what I wanted - not to talk about what I was going through. I wanted my girlfriends to catch me up."
So Wasserman Schultz avoided medical questions and briefed Giffords on proposed Republican budget cuts, her kids and "normal girlfriend stuff."
Visits from friends lift her spirits, said Giffords's chief of staff, Pia Carusone. The visits "remind her that she's strong enough to get through this and her life is waiting for her on the other side," she said.
Wasserman Schultz said Giffords looks "fantastic."
"She concentrated on what I was saying," Wasserman Schultz said. "But it was sometimes frustrating for her. I could see it in her face. She was looking at me like, 'I want to respond but I can't.'
"And I said, 'Gabby, don't worry about it. I know you can't respond right now. You don't have to worry about responding to me. I'll just keep talking to you.' "Community support
On Thursday, six riderless horses led the 86th annual Rodeo Parade in Tucson. The horses carried large photographs of each shooting victim. In the stirrups, boots faced backward - one had children's cowboy boots commemorating Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl who died.
Giffords for years has ridden in the parade, a celebration of frontier culture that dates from 1925.
This year, two staffers injured in the shootings - Barber and Simon - rode in a horse-drawn buggy while other staffers walked alongside waving American flags.
Barber, who has not returned to the office, has had a difficult recovery from his two gunshot wounds. Simon, a retired teacher, was shot in the chest, and the bullet that lodged in her hip became infected. Doctors removed it and gave it to the FBI.
On the day of the shooting, Simon was there early and texted Giffords to bring a sweater to ward off the chilly air. Simon saw the gunman fire at Giffords. Seconds later, shot twice, Simon fell facedown.
At the parade, the crowd cheered when they saw Simon and Barber. A banner on the side of the buggy said, "Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' staff."
"We were touched to see the community love and support for Gabby's healing. And our healing," Simon said.
Last week, Simon returned to work at Giffords's Tucson office. The counselor from Washington had gone, but Simon and most of her colleagues continue to seek help from private therapists. Friday would have been Zimmerman's 31st birthday. At the office, other staffers are slowly beginning to use his desk.