HOUSTON (AP) – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords got a dramatic send-off from her hometown Friday as throngs of sign-carrying well-wishers lined the streets to wave at the ambulance taking the wounded congresswoman from the hospital to the airport, where she was flown to Houston just two weeks after she was shot.
The trip by ambulance, jet and helicopter took her to a Houston hospital where she will undergo weeks of rigorous rehabilitation.
“We want to be here to help her and show her a good farewell, and hope that she has a great recovery,” said Al Garcia, a Marine veteran who came on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. “It’s through all of these prayers that she’s leaving in just two weeks.”
A gunman shot Giffords and 18 other people Jan. 8 as she met with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. Six people died; all other survivors have been released from the hospital. The suspect in the attack, Jared Loughner, 22, of Tucson, is being held in federal custody.
Giffords has been making progress nearly every day at University Medical Center in Tucson. Her husband, Houston-based astronaut Mark Kelly, tweeted Friday: “GG going to next phase of her recover today. Very grateful to the docs and nurses at UMC, Tucson PD, Sheriffs Dept….Back in Tucson ASAP!”
Kelly traveled with Giffords, along with her mother, a doctor and other medical workers. A helicopter took her from the Houston airport to the ICU at Texas Medical Center, where she’ll be evaluated before going to the center’s rehabilitation hospital, TIRR Memorial Hermann. U.S. Capitol police arrived Thursday afternoon to set up extra security measures at the 119-bed facility.
Despite the steady progress, doctors warn Giffords has a long road to recovery. Doctors are not sure what, if any, disability she will have.
She moves her lips, but it’s not clear whether she is mouthing words, nor how much she is able to see.
“Not everyone always gets 100 percent restoration, but we help them to get to a new normal,” said Carl Josehart, chief executive of the rehab hospital that will be Giffords’ home for the next month or two.
Dr. Gerard Francisco, the hospital’s chief medical officer, will coordinate her care.
“It’s going to be a very big team that will address different impairments, but they will have to work together,” he said.
First, they’ll check her vital signs — make sure her blood pressure and heart rate are good. Then specialists ranging from physical and occupational therapists to speech therapists and psychologists will give a slew of tests to see what she can and cannot do.
They’ll determine the strength of her legs and her ability to stand and walk; the strength of her arms, and whether she can brush her teeth or comb her hair; whether she can safely swallow on her own; how well she thinks and communicates — not just her ability to speak but also to understand and comprehend.
While she is moving both arms and legs, it’s uncertain how much strength she has on her right side; the bullet passed through the left side of her brain, which controls the right side of the body.
Giffords will stay at Memorial Hermann until she no longer needs 24-hour medical care — the average is one to two months. Then she can get up to five hours a day of physical and other rehab therapies on an outpatient basis, Josehart said.
“It’s hard to speculate on the trajectory or course that any one patient will have,” he said.
Sometimes, areas of the brain that seem damaged can recover, said Mark Sherer, a neuropsychologist at the rehab center.
“Some of the tissue is temporarily dysfunctional, so the patient appears very impaired very early on after the injury,” but may not be permanently damaged, he said.
Kelly said Giffords would be proud of the way Tucson has responded. Memorials continued to grow Friday outside the hospital, in front of her office and at the scene of the shooting.
“I know one of the first things Gabby is going to want to do as soon as she’s able to is start writing thank you notes,” he said.
Dave Sanderson stood along the ambulance route as Giffords left, along with his dog who had an American flag attached to its collar. Sanderson said he’s been coming to the memorial outside the hospital every day since the shooting happened.
“I just wanted to wish her well and the best of luck,” he said.
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