Tucson doctors feeling a tug in their hearts Friday handed off U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to Houston rehab specialists who wasted no time starting the painstaking business of reteaching her brain to perform life’s most basic functions.
After a “flawless transfer,” accompanying Arizona surgeon Dr. Randall Friese told how the congresswoman smiled and even teared up when she heard applause from Tucson residents who lined the street to bid farewell as her ambulance made its way to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
“It was heartwrenching (and) wonderful to hear the support Tucsonians and Arizonians have for Gabby,” said Friese, who held Giffords’ hand during surgery after she was shot in the head two weeks ago. “We love her; we’re going to miss her while she’s here. But this is where she needs to be.”
Houston doctors gave Giffords her first physical therapy at 4:30 p.m., just three hours after she landed at William P. Hobby Airport and flew by Memorial Hermann Hospital Life Flight helicopter to the system’s Texas Medical Center trauma center. They would not specify the therapy.
Giffords will remain at the trauma center’s ICU through at least early next week, the result of a fluid buildup in her brain requiring drainage.
When the drain is out and doctors deem her ready, she’ll be moved to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Memorial Hermann, the system’s premier rehab facility a few blocks away.
“She looks spectacular in all ways,” said Dr. Dong Kim, neurosurgery chairman at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Memorial Hermann’s academic affiliate. “She’s alert, awake, calm. She looks comfortable.”
Dr. Gerardo Francisco, chief medical officer at TIRR and chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UT-Houston, added that Giffords has “great rehabilitation potential.”
In a Jan. 8 rampage, Giffords and 18 other people were shot, six fatally, as she met with a crowd of constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. The bullet transversed the entire left side of Gifford’s brain, damaging some tissue but missing large regions, and exited the back of her skull.
Doctors said Friday she has some weakness or paralysis on her right side, the area controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere.
The coming days at the trauma center promise to be less sentimental than Friday, when Giffords was accompanied from Tucson to Houston by her husband, Mark Kelly, a League City astronaut; her mother; her surgeon; a nurse and two aides. Doctors described Kelly as “very relaxed, focused and optimistic.”
During the airplane ride, Giffords wore a protective helmet emblazoned with the Arizona flag, special art requested by Kelly, who told doctors it was what the congresswoman would want. A helmet is necessary because part of Giffords’ skull has been removed, necessary to prevent pressure from brain swelling.
To keep cabin pressure down during the flight, the pilot flew at 23,000 feet, instead of the normal 37,000, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
Giffords’ new team will be developing her rehab plan over the next couple of days, they said Friday. Until she moves to TIRR, they said, the congresswoman will put in several hours of physical therapy a day at the trauma center.
ICU doctors’ priority will be to prevent complications — infections, deep vein thrombosis, pneumonia.
Smiling and trying to talk
At TIRR, Giffords will relearn the basics — walking, talking, swallowing, cognitive skills needed to perform daily activities such as getting dressed and brushing her teeth. At some point, patients are taken on field trips to museums, restaurants and markets, where they’re given money and told to make transactions.
Doctors described Giffords as “aware” and said she’s moving her lips in a way that suggests she’s trying to talk. Friese said he told her, “I’m proud to say I voted for you before and I’ll vote for you again,” and she smiled.
The day’s most emotional moment came when Giffords’ Arizona team said goodbye before leaving for their flight back to Tucson. When the congresswoman fingered a ring on nurse Tracy Culbert’s hand, the nurse took it off and gave it to Giffords, who put it on her own hand.
“Do you want me to cry,” said Culbert, telling the story. “It’s kind of personal. I’m lucky to know her. I’m sad to be leaving, but I know she’s in good hands.”