Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ friends say it’s nothing short of a miracle: Days after being shot in the head point-blank, the injured congresswoman opened an eye Wednesday for the first time.
Two of her closest friends from Congress, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., were in Giffords’ Tucson, Ariz., hospital room at the time. Both had traveled to Arizona on Air Force One with President Barack Obama to attend a memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s shooting rampage.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama immediately headed to University Medical Center after landing in Tucson, and spent about 10 minutes with Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. Soon after, Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, got their chance to visit.
The women became close friends while they were all serving in the House. Their professional bond turned personal, with Giffords and her husband going on double-dates with Gillibrand and her husband at Matchbox, one of their favorite Washington restaurants, and taking summer vacations to New Hampshire with Wasserman Schultz’s family.
These were the memories they were sharing with Giffords when the congresswoman started to signal that she may have known they were there.
Gillibrand said she was holding Giffords’ left hand when she started to feel it move. Giffords squeezed the senator’s hand, then rubbed her hand with her thumb.
Then Giffords’ left eye started to flicker. For about 30 seconds, Giffords struggled, before finally opening her eye wide and straining to focus on her friends, husband, parents and doctor.
“We knew she could hear and understand what we were saying,” Gillibrand told reporters traveling back to Washington with the president Thursday morning.
Giffrods’ right eye was bandaged at the time. Doctors think the bullet pierced the front of her head and exited the back, slicing the left side of the brain, which controls speech abilities and muscles on the right side of the body. They did not explain why her right eye was bandaged.
It was the first time Giffords had opened her eye since the shooting. Kelly told Giffords to give him a thumbs-up if she could hear him. Instead, she slowly raised her left arm.
“The doctor said this is amazing what she’s doing right now and beyond our greatest hopes,” Gillibrand said.
“It felt like we were watching a miracle,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The strength that you could see flowing out of her, it was like she was trying to will her eyes open.”
On ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Thursday, Gillibrand added, “Everything that we love about Gabby was all there at that moment.”
Kelly told the president and first lady about the development as they drove from the hospital to the University of Arizona’s McKale Center, where Obama would speak at a memorial service. Kelly gave the president permission to tell the crowd about his wife’s progress.
“Gabby opened her eyes,” Obama told the cheering crowd. “So I can tell you: She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey.”
On Thursday, Giffords was opening both eyes, moving both legs and arms and responding to friends and family.
Doctors called it a “major milestone” in her recovery.
“We’re hoping that she crosses through many more,” said her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole.
At a news conference Thursday at Tucson’s University Medical Center, Lemole smiled when asked if it was a miracle. Then, he spoke carefully, as those trained to operate on the most delicate of organs do. He knows all too well the setbacks that could lurk.
“Miracles happen every day,” he said. “In medicine, we like to very much attribute them to either what we do or others do around us. But a lot of medicine is outside of our control and we’re wise to acknowledge miracles.”
He called her movements a “leap forward.” Her doctors said her progress was not completely unexpected, but still remarkable.
Giffords was still in critical condition, with part of her skull removed to allow for brain swelling.
Few people survive a bullet to the brain — just 10 percent — and some who do end up in a vegetative state.
The fact that Giffords is alert and moving “puts her in the exceptional category,” Lemole said.
The doctors figured Giffords would open her eyes soon enough and were pleased that it coincided with Obama’s visit. She can now keep them open for up to 15 minutes at a time.
Trauma chief Dr. Peter Rhee said Giffords acts like a bleary-eyed person just waking up.
Giffords yawns, rubs her eyes and tries to focus, he said. Doctors don’t yet know if she can recognize her surroundings, but there are signs her eyes are beginning to track movements.
She is receiving physical therapy, which includes dangling her legs from her bed while propped up by nurses. Doctors hope to have her sit in a chair by today.
They also hope to remove her breathing tube — what they called the next milestone.
Kelly has remained by her side the whole time, doctors said. He is scheduled to command NASA’s last space shuttle flight, but that’s uncertain now. NASA announced a fill-in commander Thursday just in case.