They described it as “a miracle.” Shot in the head less than a week ago, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes briefly for the first time Wednesday, with her husband, her parents and other members of Congress in the room.
“It was extraordinary,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who was holding Giffords’ hand at the time. “It was a miracle to witness.”
The incident occurred shortly after President Barack Obama had visited Giffords in her hospital room. Less than an hour later, given permission to disclose the information by Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband, Obama electrified a memorial-service crowd and a national television audience by revealing one of the most promising pieces of news about Gifford’s condition to emerge since an assassination attempt against her on Saturday.
Giffords was squeezing and stroking Gillibrand’s hand, as doctors previously said she had been able to do.
Giffords “absolutely could hear everything we were saying,” Gillibrand said. “And Debbie (Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida) and I were telling her how much she was inspiring the nation with her courage, her strength, and we were talking about the things we wanted to do as soon as she was better.”
Gillibrand mentioned having another night out with Giffords and her husband for beer and pizza. And Wasserman Schultz recounted telling her, “Come on, you’ve got to get better, because we expect you up in New Hampshire this summer” at Wasserman Schultz’s vacation home.
“And just as I said that, that’s when she suddenly was struggling to open … her eyes,” Wasserman Schultz said. “First just a little bit. And the doctors couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘This is such a good time.’ ”
Kelly saw her struggling, Gillibrand said, and he and the others began to encourage her, saying, “Open your eyes, Gabby. Open your eyes.”
And Giffords did. Her right eye remains bandaged, but Giffords is opening both of them, doctors said Thursday.
“She took a moment to focus, you could see she was focusing,” Gillibrand said. “And then Mark said … ‘Gabby, if you can see me, if you can see me, give us a thumbs-up … She didn’t only give a thumbs-up, she literally raised her entire hand. We were just — we couldn’t stop crying … It was just one of those moments that life brings you so rarely.”
But Giffords didn’t stop there, Gillibrand said. She reached out and grabbed her husband “and is touching him and starts to really choke him like she was really trying to hug him.” He asked her to touch his wedding ring, “and she touches his ring, then she grabs his whole watch and wrist and then the doctor was just so excited, he said, ‘You don’t understand … this is amazing what she is doing right now and beyond our greatest hopes.’ ”
Of the six patients the hospital is still treating from Saturday’s shooting, Giffords is the only one in critical condition. Four others are in fair condition, and the sixth was being released from the hospital Thursday, said Dr. Peter Rhee, medical director of the University Medical Center’s trauma center.
Giffords remains in critical condition because doctors are worried about her losing ground, said Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the hospital.
A 9-year-old girl, Christina Green, and Arizona’s chief federal judge, John Roll, are among the dead, along with Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords staffer. Green will be laid to rest on Thursday.
Authorities say Giffords was the target of the shooting. Thirteen other people suffered gunshot wounds, the Pima County Sheriff has said, while others were injured trying to flee the scene.
Tucson resident Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is facing federal charges in the attack.
The milestone is only the latest for the Arizona congresswoman, who doctors said could respond to commands even upon arrival at the hospital trauma unit — she squeezed a doctor’s hand when asked to do so — less than an hour after the shooting. Even when her prognosis was grim, she has consistently defied the odds and met or exceeded expectations.
The next step, doctors told reporters Thursday, is the removal of Giffords’ breathing tube. She is breathing on her own “with very little support,” Rhee said, but he wasn’t sure when the tube might come out.
Giffords is “becoming more and more alert at this time,” he said, telling reporters she acts like someone waking up in the morning — yawning and rubbing her eyes. “We have seen the eyes begin to track” and focus, he said.
She has been opening her eyes more often since the first time Thursday night, Lemole said. “This is all very encouraging,” he said. “… It is a significant move forward.”
Rhee said Giffords has been undergoing physical therapy, in which staffers sit her up with her legs dangling off the side of the bed. When asked, she can move both legs, straightening them out, he said.
Safeway, which owns the grocery store where the shooting took place, took out a full-page ad in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star newspaper Thursday, saying it is proud to be part of a community that cares so deeply about one another. Since Saturday, Safeway employees have been praying for the victims and their families, and the company is working to reopen the store, it said. Supermarkets pride themselves on reopening quickly following disasters, it noted, but Saturday’s events were not a tornado or hurricane.
Doctors have cautiously described Giffords’ recovery as going according to plan, so far absent of any complications or issues, and have said throughout that she has been able to communicate when they lessen her sedation and allow her to awaken.
“Other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally one of your closest friends struggle to come to you, her family, her friends,” said Wasserman Schultz, who spoke on CNN’s “AC360” along with Gillibrand. “We know how strong Gabby is. … You could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband.”
“She wanted to tell us, ‘I’m with you,’ ” Gillibrand said.
Lemole said he also was in the room when Giffords opened her eyes, saying it might have been the “unexpected familiarity” of having close friends visit that perhaps Giffords wasn’t expecting.
“This is the part that doctors, I think, have the hardest time with — those intangibles in medicine,” he said, referring to the role that family and friends can play in prompting patient progress.
“Miracles happen every day,” Lemole said. “… A lot of medicine is outside our control.”
“It was, as you can imagine, a glorious moment,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was also in the room.
The road ahead for Giffords may be long. Her recovery may last a lifetime, like that of Jim Brady, a former White House press secretary under President Ronald Reagan who was shot in the head in 1981. Several parallels have been drawn between the two. Now 70 and blind, Brady told CNN’s Jim Acosta this week he routinely goes to physical therapy near his Delaware home.
“Life will always be good again,” Brady said. “It may be different. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
And Giffords has been described by many as tenacious and fearless.
“Our boss is a fighter, and she’s fighting,” C.J. Karamargin, Giffords’ spokesman, said on “AC360.” “And we saw that today.”