Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is breathing on her own and moving both arms, both very encouraging signs of recovery, physicians at University Medical Center in Tucson said Tuesday.
In an interview, Dr. Peter Rhee, the chief of trauma at the medical center, said Giffords was moving both arms, although her left arm was more active than her right, and moving her eyes. Previously, doctors had said that she was moving only her left arm, which is controlled by the right hemisphere of her brain — the side that was not penetrated by the bullet.
The fact that she was able to move her right arm, which is controlled by the injured hemisphere, suggested that the damage was not as bad as surgeons had initially feared.
The swelling around her eyes had decreased, and although she hadn’t opened them yet, Rhee said he detected “flickering” that indicated she was trying. Most notably, the swelling in her brain had not increased; swelling tends to peak about three days after such an injury.
“She is able to generate her own breaths,” Dr. Michael Lemole, one of the neurosurgeons who operated on her after the shooting Saturday morning, said during a news conference. Nonetheless, Giffords’ doctors have left a breathing tube in place in an effort to prevent fluid from entering her lungs, which could cause pneumonia.
The surgical team also has revised its initial assessment of the bullet’s trajectory, which the doctors had thought entered from the rear and exited over the left eye. They now say it looks as if she was shot in the top part of her face and the bullet exited out of the back of her head, Rhee said.
Lemole said Giffords was still following simple commands. The team has backed off on her sedation so that she is alert more, he said, but he would not make any predictions about the rate of her recovery. “She’s going to take her recovery at her own pace, not ours. I’m very encouraged that she has done so well. She has no right to look this good.… We all have to be extremely patient.”
Rhee said she was over the hump in terms of survival. “I think she has a 101% chance of surviving. She will not die,” he said. He also does not think she will be in a prolonged coma. “As far as a vegetative state, I don’t think she will be in a vegetative state at all.”
Because Giffords’ husband, Mark E. Kelly, is a member of the Navy and an astronaut, Lemole said, “the resources of the entire military have been made available. Early on, we took advantage and asked two people to come and give consultation, world-famous people” — Dr. Geoffrey Ling, a neurointensivist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and Dr. James Ecklund of Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, a retired colonel.
Both have extensive experience with penetrating injuries of the skull. Ling was on his way to Afghanistan when he was recalled and asked to come to Arizona to consult. Both appeared at the news conference and praised the care she had received.
Giffords suffered “a very serious injury, make no mistake,” Ling said. “The good news is she is in fact thriving. …However, it is going to be a process now where recovery is dictated by her, day to day. We all are very hopeful, but she is very critically ill from a very serious injury.”
Maugh reported from Los Angeles and Mehta from Tucson.