WASHINGTON — Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gabrielle Giffords became fast friends when they met. Both Jewish, rising Democratic stars under 40 at the time, they gravitated to each other. So it was only natural that Wasserman Schultz would join President Barack Obama on his visit Wednesday to the Tucson, Ariz., hospital where Giffords is recovering.
Shortly after the president left the room, with Florida U.S. Rep. Wasserman Schultz at her side, the Arizona congresswoman opened an eye for the first time since Saturday's shooting. Then she raised her left arm, as her husband asked her to give him a thumbs up if she could see him.
"It felt like we were watching a miracle," Wasserman Schultz said on the Air Force One flight back to Washington. "Other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is, and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband."
For both, it's a friendship forged in politics, but one that's grown far more personal.
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Wasserman Schultz and her husband, Steve Schultz, met Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, before Giffords ever ran for Congress. The two women had been chosen for a legislative fellowship, traveling to several cities and spending time together.
When Giffords — then a state senator — ran for Congress in 2006, Wasserman Schultz was helping her party's recruitment efforts, and she visited with Giffords in Tucson.
The families attended Kelly's last shuttle launch together, and they've vacationed together in New Hampshire several times. Giffords was in Miami last fall at a fundraiser Wasserman Schultz held for the Arizona congresswoman and several other colleagues.
"Our bond is strengthened because we share a profession and experiences," Wasserman Schultz said in an interview Thursday. "But it's tighter than that. There are precious few good friends."
Wasserman Schultz said the women "don't get a lot of social time" in Washington but tried to catch up when they could, recently lunching together in the Senate dining room at New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's request. It was Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who stood by Giffords' hospital bed when her left eye fluttered open. Her right eye was damaged and is still bandaged.
Gillibrand said the congresswomen were telling Giffords "how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength. And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better."
Giffords was gripping their hands, Gillibrand said, "and the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes."
Wasserman Schultz said she had just told Giffords, " 'Gabby, we fully expect you to be up and ready to go, to come back up to New Hampshire this summer,' and that's when she started to open her eye."
Wasserman Schultz said she'd talked to Kelly about what to expect and described Giffords as not looking "anything like you would imagine someone with a gunshot wound to the head."
"She looked angelic, I have to tell you. It was stunning." she said. "I mean, the strength that she has is — we were already aware of, but it clearly — it just resonates all the way through her."
Kelly shares that strength, both women said, noting that he told them that "Gabby is going to be walking. I told the doctor that Gabby would be walking in two weeks."
"She's totally enveloped by the love of her family, of her friends, of her constituents and now the whole nation," Wasserman Schultz said. "And I think it's absolutely clear that all that energy has been felt by her."
Wasserman Schultz said Giffords' responses astounded the doctor in the room, who told them, "You don't understand; this is really, really significant progress." As he fired off messages on his BlackBerry, Giffords' parents wept.
Finally, the congresswomen were shown the door, Wasserman Schultz said.
"There was a lot of excitement. She had to rest," Wasserman Schultz said. "We told her how much we loved her and we'd be back to see her and whatever she needed us to do, we'd be here for her."
Wasserman Schultz said Thursday that she and Gillibrand walked out of the hospital room buoyed by the "power of girlfriends."
Neurosurgeon Michael Lemole told them outside the hospital room that he'd long discounted reports that emotion "and friendship and family" could make a medical difference, Wasserman Schultz said. However, he added, "I just witnessed the impact of friendship and what you guys, you did this here today," she said.
Lemole said Thursday that "I think it was a combination perhaps of the unexpected but familiar that really prompted her to open her eyes and look around. And that's important."
"A lot of medicine is outside our control, and we're wise to acknowledge miracles," he said.
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