Gabrielle Giffords’ Road To Recovery

by J-Stacknik

Mark Kelly was at his wife, Gabrielle Giffords' side throughout her recovery from the injuries she sustained during the Tucson shooting in 2011.

As most politicians know the job of representing the people who vote for them isn’t easy. It’s a job that requires a lot of work, comes with a lot of criticism, and gives out few rewards. Some politicians have even give their life for their constituents, in the course of their jobs. In the case of Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat Representative for Arizona, that is what almost happened. On January 8, 2011 she was shot almost at point blank range the bullet sailing through the left side of her brain.

Nineteen people were gunned down that day by a crazed gunman, six unfortunately were killed, including nine year old Christina-Taylor Green. Giffords was the obvious target as the gunman pointed his gun less than three feet from her, pulled the trigger, and then continued shooting. It is a small miracle that Gabrielle survived that attack. It is an even bigger miracle that she could recover from it. Giffords’ recovery story is one of courage, pride and inspiration.

Gabrielle’s husband, astronaut and retired navy captain, Mark Kelly was an integral part of her recovery over ten months from the day of the shooting. He was by her side almost every day, recording her recovery and wrote, with her help, a memoir Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. He watched her struggling to get a word out which at first was just a jumble of sounds and disjointed consonants. It was so frustrating for her that she would sob and hyperventilate, waving her good hand next to her mouth, eyes wide with fear.

“She had figured out that she was trapped, trapped inside herself.” said Kelly. Months later, when her words manifested in staccato phrases, she came to him with this: “Voice in my head,” she said. “Whose voice?” he asked, “someone else’s?” “No.” she said, and then he guessed it. The voice echoing in Giffords’ head was her own – haunting, because she couldn’t use it.

Through that ten month recovery period the recordings and book reveal raw, painful, even undignified details of her healing journey and struggle to find her voice. It details the weeks she spent repeating “chicken-chicken-chicken” in answer to therapists’ questions, and reveals the humiliation when she couldn’t ask nurses to get her to a bathroom. Giffords herself writes, “Just rolling onto my side is hard. Hard to sleep at night. Reminds me of how badly I was hurt. It was hard, but I’m alive.”

Gabby’s rehab took place at Houston’s TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital. In the early weeks of recovery people didn’t know what she was thinking or if she was even thinking at all. Mark thought it was a good idea, because Gabby had always been goal driven, to set some goals for her. He brought her tennis shoes into her hospital room and placed them on the chair in front of her bed and said that the goal was that eventually she would be able to walk to those shoes and eventually wear them.

The struggle with words was a slow process. She couldn’t find the words at all and she knew it. “In those early months, Gabby was locked inside herself,” said Kelly a few words emerging at a time. During those first days he tried to tell her what had happened to her. She didn’t seem to understand. On February 6th, came her first word which sounded like “whatwhatwhat”. Within weeks, she could say a few dozen words. Within months, about 1,000.

Early on, like most brain-injury patients. Gabby was stuck on a few odd words, which she would offer when she was expected to speak. Here is what transpired at one therapy session:

Giffords is sitting at a table in her room, a flashcard depicting a lamp is held up by the therapist.

“You turn the llllll…” her therapist prompts.

“Lllll, Mary, chicken,” Gifford responds. “Chicken-chicken-chicken-chicken.”

The therapists tries again.

“You turn on the lllll√ñ.”

“Tooooooth berry chicken,” Giffords responds

It happens again, and again, and again.

Tooth berry chicken.

Chicken chicken chicken.

Trying to help Giffords access the “L” sound, the therapist asks Gifford: “what do you say to Mark? I …”

“Love you,” Giffords replies easily, punctuating the words with swings of her good arm.

They try again.

“You turn on the llll √ñ”

Giffords squints her eyes, scrunches her face, grits her teeth.

“Don’t get frustrated,” the therapist says, patting her arm.

“Cheeseburger,” Giffords moans, her voice rising as if she is about to cry. “Cheeseburger.” She says it again and then shakes her head, laughing in frustration as the meaning of what she said sets in.

Therapists even used music to test her memory. They sing along to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” She grins, hits every pause, and remembers lyrics that her therapists didn’t know. Music memory is stored in the right brain, and therapists use it to trigger the language skills kept on that side of her brain. Therapists help her work out key words and phrases that she used most often. Gabby could sing “I need to use the bathroom. I want to go to bed.”

On March 12th, for the fourth time, Kelly told Giffords about January 8 – because she wanted him to. This time, it sunk in. What did she remember about that day? he asked. “Shot. Shocked. Scary,” she replied. Her memory was coming back.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., on the floor of the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., before delivering the State of the Union address, Jan. 24, 2012.

Music was also used to stimulate her physical movement. A guitarist would follow Giffords as she walked, with the assistance of a shopping cart, down the hospital hallway while a therapist crawls behind her, moving her right leg. Gabby herself started believing and when asked if she was proud she responded, giving a half sure smile “Yes.”

Gabby was now able to go out of the hospital for extended periods of time and every time she walked out of the hospital doors she would say “Free at last.” On June 15th she was released from TIRR, five months after the shooting, and moved to Kelly’s Houston home while continuing outpatient therapy. Kelly wrote in the book that he spent his days hoping that Gabby would be able to end a sentence with a question mark. One July evening over spaghetti, Kelly asked Giffords what she’d done that day. She talked about therapy, and then said, “Your day?”

That was enough for him.

Eventually the day came when Gabby wanted to know more about January 8. Kelly walked into the couple’s bedroom, there was something she wanted ask him. “Sit down” she said “Shut the door.”

“Shot,” she said. “Questions and answers.”

“Who died?”

He told her about her friends. Gabe Zimmerman and Judge John Roll, and Phyllis Schneck, Dorothy Morris, Dorwan Stoddard and of course hardest of all of them, for Gabby, was nine year old Christina-Taylor Green. He told her he went to all the funerals he could.

“She started half-crying, half-moaning,” he writes. “She was overwhelmed with grief.” Finally she knew the full story.

Gabby is still on the road to recovery and on January 25th, 2012, over a year after the shooting, she officially resigned her seat in the house of congress so she could focus on her rehabilitation. Democrats and Republicans lined up to see her off. A prolonged standing ovation followed with tributes and tears.

On the audio book for the book Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope each syllable is slow and laborious “Long ways to go. It’s frustrating. Mentally hard. Hard work,” she says in the final chapter. “I’m trying. Trying so hard to get better.”

Read more:

Gabrielle Giffords Recovery

Gabrielle Giffords Resigns from Congress

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly Interview with Diane Sawyer | Youtube


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