Giffords showing good progress, doctors say

healing: She has begun responding to family

January 14, 2011 

LOS ANGELES – U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., has not only opened her eyes, but she also is communicating with her family, physicians said at a Thursday morning news conference.

“Her family has asked her very specific things, and she has used her hand to communicate with them,” said Dr. Michael Lemole, a neurosurgeon at Tucson’s University Medical Center and one of the surgeons who operated on Giffords after she was shot in the head Saturday morning. That implies that she has a good amount of cognitive functioning.

Lemole said he was there when Giffords first opened her eyes Wednesday evening in the presence of family members and some of her colleagues from Congress. “It was probably a combination of the unexpected but familiar that prompted her to open her eyes and caused her to look around. That implies that the part of the brain that let lets us awake from sleeping, the arousal center,” is functioning, he said.

“That’s a very important step on her move forward.”

He said she opened her eyes again later in the evening in response to a television broadcast of the president’s speech at the university.

“That consistency is important,” he said. “We want to see things repeated over and over again.”

Lemole said it is the job of doctors to do their best for severely damaged patients, but sometimes, as in Giffords’ case, “we are wise to acknowledge miracles.”

Thursday morning, Giffords was acting more and more like someone waking up, said Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma surgery at the medical center – yawning and rubbing her eyes. He said her eyes also are beginning to track movements, which is another good sign.

The next major hurdle, the doctors said, will be removing the breathing tube, but they are unlikely to do that for a few more days. They are using it to puff warm, moist air into her lungs to prevent fluid accumulation that could lead to pneumonia. Giffords is breathing on her own, however.

Once the tube is out, they will be able to assess her ability to speak.

Lemole said the team is beginning aggressive physical therapy, which includes having Giffords sit on the edge of her bed with her legs dangling over the side.

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