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Giffords Travels to Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch as Recovery Progresses

April 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' recovery from a gunshot wound marks a milestone as she travels to watch husband Mark Kelly command Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight. Despite regaining some abilities, she face many more challenges. Ray Suarez discusses her recovery with the National Rehabilitation Hospital's William Garmoe.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband are back in the national eye this week, bringing renewed attention to her recovery so far.

Ray Suarez has our update.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a milestone in Congresswoman Giffords’ struggle to recover from being shot in the head last January. Tomorrow at Cape Canaveral, Fla., she will attend the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. Her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, is commanding the mission.

Kelly says his wife was thrilled when she found out her doctors in Houston would allow her to go.

MARK KELLY, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: I think she said “awesome” and pumped her fist one more time.

RAY SUAREZ: Giffords was critically wounded in January by a gunman in Tucson, Ariz. Not long after the shootings she was moved to a Houston rehabilitation facility. And while her early recovery was described as miraculous, signs of improvement are now coming more slowly.

DR. MICHAEL YOCHELSON, National Rehabilitation Hospital: We saw some very early signs and so we got so optimistic, we were expecting a very fast recovery. And that’s not what we’re seeing now.

RAY SUAREZ: Her doctors say Giffords’ speech is improving but she still struggles with words, using only short phrases, like “love you” and “I miss Tucson.”

Still, Giffords has made enough progress to travel to Florida for the launch, albeit under guarded conditions with reporters kept well away. On Wednesday, long-distance images showed a figure, apparently Giffords, walking with help up the steps of a private jet that flew her to Cape Canaveral. There she will join families of the shuttle’s other crew members in a private viewing on Friday.

But she has prepared for the occasion by writing a personal note for her husband to read in space. And she’s also chosen a wakeup song for the crew, just as she did four years ago. And once the launch is past, Giffords has told aides she has another goal in mind: to walk a mountain someday.

We did ask for an interview with doctors at Giffords’ rehab center, but they were unable to join us.

So, for more we turn to a neuropsychologist who specializes in treating brain injury, William Garmoe of the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

And to get us started, what is a neuropsychologist and what role do you play on a rehab team?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE, National Rehabilitation Hospital: A neuropsychologist is a doctoral-level clinical psychologist who then goes and pursues additional two or more years of fellowship training to specialize in brain disorders and brain conditions.

So for example, on a rehabilitation team, a neuropsychologist will work closely with their physician colleagues and the physical and occupational and speech therapists to get a good assessment of the individual, how their injury has affected their cognitive and behavioral functioning, how it’s affecting their psychological well-being.

And then we will provide assessment and treatment along the way, sometimes, as long as 10 or 20 years, if that’s necessary.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, noting that you haven’t consulted Rep. Giffords or her team, can you assume, from the fact that she’s being allowed to travel, that her recovery is continuing, and, in her doctor’s view, going well?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: Well, I think there’s a — I should preface this by saying, I think it’s a good thing that we don’t know a lot about her recovery, because while Ms. Giffords is a public figure, of course, she is also a private individual and a private citizen, who deserves her right to privacy for her medical condition and her recovery.

So, I think it’s a good thing that we’re — we don’t know a lot about all of the details, that we’re not seeing a lot of photographs, because she’s entitled to that privacy and we need to respect that.

Having said that, I think it is a good thing. We can infer that it is a positive thing that she’s being allowed to travel, because if she wasn’t sufficiently stable, in terms of her medical condition and her cognitive and psychological abilities, then they probably wouldn’t let her — her — let her take this traveling.

She is at a very good rehabilitation hospital. And they’re going to be cautious about what they let her do. So, it probably is a positive sign.

RAY SUAREZ: Can the trip itself, just being allowed to do something normal that she would have been doing absent the shooting, be therapeutic?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: Yes. Actually I think a trip like this has the potential to be therapeutic. I haven’t read a lot about it, but I know some people have raised some concerns, but it can be therapeutic in a few different ways.

One is, it’s an opportunity for the person to do what we sometimes call starting to normalize life, that you have to start return to do the things that you would normally do if you had never been injured. It’s never going to be exactly the same as it was but you need to start to resume those roles.

And so it’s — in part, it’s therapeutic because it’s an opportunity to go out into the world and to see what goes well, what doesn’t go well. And I — I’m sorry — I was going to say it also can be therapeutic because it is an opportunity for her to resume a role that was a normal role for her.

Since the time she’s been injured, she’s been taken care of. She’s been watched very closely. And this actually could be a way that she has an opportunity to resume her role as a spouse and to do something for her husband. So — so, in that way, it also could be a therapeutic thing for her.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re still just a couple of months in, but what should the public understand about recovery from a severe brain injury, emotionally, physically, regaining your previous capacities?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: That’s a real challenging question.

We like heroic stories of recovery and we like to have the belief that somebody’s going to overcome, 100 percent recovery, return to everything the way it was before. And when you have had a severe brain injury that’s simply not what happens.

The — there are levels of damage that are permanent. There are changes that will not fully heal. And so, what the individual needs to learn is, they need to learn to how to compensate for abilities that have been lost, how to rebuild new abilities, how to resume old roles, but to do it in a different way than you were before.

That’s the real sign of a successful and, if you want to call it, a heroic recovery that tens of thousands of people who have brain injuries much like Ms. Giffords had, is — is recovering from, do every day.

RAY SUAREZ: So, it sounds like you are saying her life will never be the same. But how long will it be until her family, her team of doctors understand what’s possible, given where she is, given what she has to come back from, and what the potential is for her taking up a normal life?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: It’s a real challenging question. Early on, I think Dr. Yochelson mentioned that there was fairly rapid signs early on. And we often see that.

And the further out from one’s injury, usually, you see the recovery curve, or the trajectory, as we say, slowing down. But it can go on for years. For example, when I came into the field, the thought was, the first year is where all the recovery occurs. I now have seen patients for 10 or 15 years who are still showing improvements of one kind or another.

So, they will be watching to see and they will be assessing on an ongoing basis the continued changes that she makes. And they will be tailoring the treatment in order to maximize the recovery that they are seeing. And for those things that don’t recovery, then her team will be working to develop ways that she can try to compensate for those areas, that she can find other ways of trying to do them.

And honestly, there may be some things that she’s just not able to resume, just as anyone who has had a severe injury such as this.

RAY SUAREZ: But quickly, we don’t know what those are yet, after four months?

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: Correct. It’s too early. It’s too early to know that.

And, again, the fact that — that she — that we don’t have all those details, respecting her privacy is a good thing. So we really don’t know unless you are one of the professionals treating her.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Garmoe, thanks a lot.

DR. WILLIAM GARMOE: You’re welcome.