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11:18 am
Tue November 15, 2011

Mark Kelly Tells Of Giffords' 'Courage' In Recovery

Originally published on Tue November 15, 2011 7:35 pm

Earlier this year, on Jan. 8, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head as she met with constituents in Tucson, Ariz. She was one of 13 people injured that day. Six people were killed.

It had been four years since Giffords arrived in Washington as a wide-eyed freshman and told NPR: "Life's good and [I'm] very, very excited — so optimistic about taking our country in a new direction."

Since she was shot, Giffords has been on a long path back from a traumatic brain injury. Giffords, 41, spent five months in the hospital. Now, she does hours of rigorous physical and speech therapy every day — and has full-time nursing care.

The story of her recovery is told in the new book Gabby: A Story Of Courage and Hope. It's told in her husband Mark Kelly's voice, but the last chapter — about half a page long — is in Giffords' own voice.

At their home outside Houston, Rep. Giffords has a huge radiant smile as she offers her left hand to shake. She still has only limited use of her right arm. She has on a T-shirt given to her by another survivor of a gunshot wound to the head. On the front the shirt says, "Got hope?" And on the back it says: "I do."

Giffords repeats that word — "hope, hope, hope" — with a little pump of her working fist.

Her language is still halting — mostly one- or two-word thoughts. Although Giffords and Kelly offered NPR a rare glimpse of their life at home, she was not made available for an interview.

Instead, Kelly — an astronaut, a former shuttle commander who recently retired from NASA — talks about his wife's injury and her recovery.

Language Recovery

Kelly recalls one awful, panicked moment a month after the attack. His wife was in the hospital in Houston. She hadn't yet spoken a word.

"One of Gabby's nurses just said, 'Hey Mark you gotta come here quickly,' " Kelly says. "Gabby was sitting in her wheelchair in the bathroom with just this look of terror on her face, tears streaming down her face, hyperventilating. And she was trying to say something and really couldn't.

"This was the moment she realized that she couldn't speak. Before that, she was in this long, hazy period of just coming out of the coma and recovering from her injuries. But at this moment, the light bulb came on and it's like, 'I cannot speak. And am I going to be trapped like this forever?' That's what she was going through and it was difficult — difficult period of time. I just held her and I told her it was going to get better. I was going to help her through this. And she has a lot of people that care for her and love her and we were going to get through this and it's gonna get better. And it did."

Language recovery has come slowly. Kelly thinks back on the moment he first heard his wife utter a word.

"At first we weren't sure if it was a word," he says. "Then she said it a couple of more times. She said the word 'what' over and over again. We didn't know if it meant, 'What's happened?' Then it was clear she wasn't really asking a question. I think [it was] the speech part of her brain booting up like a computer boots up for the first time — and that's the spot it booted up at."

In the book, Kelly compares a brain injury to a hurricane.

"It's like the drawer of a filing cabinet came open, and all of the files got blown up in the air," he says. "And some of them fell back into the correct place. Some of them fell in the wrong place. And some of them are gone forever. I see that with Gabby. Her memory is really good. But sometimes, when she looks for the correct word, she'll get the wrong word. Sometimes the correct word is there. And then sometimes it's in the wrong place, but I've come to learn that your brain can rewire itself to some extent. And she can find where those words are now located."

Six months after the shooting, Giffords still couldn't formulate a question. Kelly expresses how difficult it is to carry on a conversation when the person you're talking to can't ask a question.

"In the beginning, the ability for her to ask me something, anything, was very significant," he says.

The first question Giffords asked was, "How was your day?"

"It was a big event," Kelly says. "It was so big to me, it completely locked my brain up — I could not remember one thing I did that day. So I had a hard time answering her. So she had this momentous event where she finally asked a question and I had no answer because I was so happy about it."

But now, Kelly says, he and Giffords are back to that banal end-of-the-day question — it's a question she asks and neither of them thinks about it.

As for Giffords' progress with language, it used to be day to day, Kelly says.

"Now I'd say it's week to week. So she's improving all of the time. We can have a conversation — it's difficult for her. She struggles; she gets frustrated. I have to remind her that that's a good thing. Getting frustrated is — from what I understand — one of those things that's helped rebuild those connections in her brain. So we try to make sure that she's frustrated," he says.

Now, Giffords speaks in full sentences, according to Kelly. The challenge for her, he says, is stringing those sentences together.

"But it's improving all of the time," he says.

A 2012 Bid For Congress 'Very Possible'

Giffords' physical progress is also slow, but steady, according to Kelly.

"She can walk. We walk to the mailbox and back. It's going to be a long time before she runs. Maybe never? I don't know. I'm hopeful," he says. "She'll be back on a bicycle, though. She used to love riding her bike around Tucson, and she'll be doing that again someday."

Kelly also says he's hopeful that Giffords will be able to seek reelection in 2012.

"I think it's very possible that she could run in 2012," he says. "We don't know yet. She'll have to make that decision sometime after the holidays, I think."

He admits that her campaign would be different this time around.

"She would not be the same campaigner that she was in the past. She knows that. She would not be able to keep that same grueling campaign schedule. But she was a maniac before. She was like the outlier in the amount of work she did. There's a lot of hardworking people in Congress, but I think she was one of the hardest. So, she certainly wouldn't be able to keep that schedule as she had in the past. But I don't think she needs to. She's a very dedicated public servant and if she wants to get back to work and represent the people in southern Arizona, they certainly can make that decision on Election Day."

Kelly says that Giffords is "pretty much the same person" as she was on Jan. 7, the day before she got shot.

"Personality wise, exactly the same. Her compassion, dedication to her job, people she sees, and how caring she is for other people. It's all exactly the same," he says. "The major thing she struggles with is the spoken language. And that's improving. She reminds me every single day to deny the acceptance of failure. She'll get better. She'll get back to Arizona. She'll get back to serving her constituents. She'll do it on her own schedule and when she's ready. But that's where she wants to be."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block with a story about the long path back from traumatic brain injury.

Listeners to this program first got to meet Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she had just arrived in Washington as a wide-eyed freshman, elected in 2006.

REPRESENTATIVE GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: You know, I got dropped off this morning at the airport in a '63 Chevy pickup truck, got my cowboy boots, met up with my fiancé. Just, life's good and very, very excited, so optimistic about taking our country in a new direction.

BLOCK: Four years after that, on January 8th of this year, Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head as she met with constituents in Tucson. She was one of thirteen people injured that day. Six people were killed.

The story of Giffords' recovery from that traumatic brain injury is told in a new book, titled "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." It's told in her husband Mark Kelly's voice. But the last chapter - about half a page long - is in Gabby Giffords' voice. And we hear her reading that part of the audio book.

GIFFORDS: (Reading) Hope and faith. You have to have hope and faith. Everything I do reminds me of that horrible day.

BLOCK: Congresswoman Giffords spent five months in the hospital. Now, she does hours of rigorous physical and speech therapy every day, and has full-time nursing care.

I met Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly at their home outside Houston. He's an astronaut, a former shuttle commander, recently retired from NASA. Congresswoman Giffords greeted me with a huge, radiant smile and a shake of her left hand - she still has only limited use of her right arm.

She was wearing a T-shirt given to her by another survivor of a gunshot wound to the head. On the front the shirt says: Got hope? And on the back it says: I do. Gabrielle Giffords repeated that word - hope, hope, hope, she told me, with a little pump of her working fist.

Giffords language is still halting. I heard mostly one or two word thoughts and she was not made available for the interview. Instead, I sat down with Mark Kelly to talk about his wife's injury and her recovery. He told me about one awful, panicked moment a month after the attack. His wife was in the hospital, in Houston. She hadn't yet spoken a word.

CAPTAIN MARK KELLY: One of gabby's nurses just said, hey Mark you got to come here quickly. Gabby was sitting in her wheelchair in the bathroom with just this look of terror on her face, tears streaming down her face, hyperventilating. And she was trying to say something and really couldn't. She just now realized - this was the moment she realized that she couldn't speak.

You know, before that, she was in this long, hazy period of just coming out of the coma and just recovering from her injuries. But at this moment, it was - the light bulb came on and it's like, I cannot speak. And am I going to be trapped like this forever? And that's what she was going through and it was difficult, difficult period of time.

BLOCK: What did you do?

KELLY: I just held her and I told her it was going to get better. I was going to help her through this. And she has a lot of people that care for her and love her, and that we were going to get through this and it's going to get better. And it did. It did.

BLOCK: Language recovery has come slowly. Mark Kelly thinks back on the moment he first heard his wife utter a word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: At first we weren't sure if it was a word. Then she said it a couple more times. You know, she said the word what over and over again. It was like what, what, what, what, what. And I don't know - we don't know if it meant, what's happened? And then it was clear she wasn't really asking a question. It was more as just her, I think the speech part of her brain just booting up like a computer boots up for the first time, and that's the spot it booted up at.

BLOCK: You use the analogy in the book that a brain injury is like hurricane. Can you explain how that manifests itself?

KELLY: You know, it's like the drawer of a filing cabinet came open and all the files got blown up in the air. And some of them fell back right into the correct place. Some of them fell in the wrong place. And some of them are gone forever. And I see that with Gabby. Her memory is really good. But sometimes, when she looks for the correct word, she'll get the wrong word.

Sometimes the correct word is there. And then sometimes it's in the wrong place. But I've come to learn that your brain can rewire itself to some extent. And she can find where those words are now located. So it is like a hurricane.

BLOCK: You describe in the book that Congresswoman Giffords couldn't formulate a question for many months; for about six months after the shooting, which really raises all sorts of thoughts about how you two could communicate during that time.

KELLY: Yeah.

BLOCK: I think about how vital it is to be able to...

KELLY: Ask a question.

BLOCK: ...ask a question.

KELLY: It never occurred to me before. It's very difficult to carry on a conversation. It becomes very one-sided. In the beginning, the ability for her to ask me something, anything, was very significant.

BLOCK: Do you remember the first question? The real question that she asked?

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. She asked how was my day. And it wasn't - you know, it wasn't like a response to something like, you know, you say like, how are you, and it's: I'm fine. How are you?

BLOCK: Like a reflex.

KELLY: Yeah, like - yeah, exactly. It was more of a real question, asking me how my day was today. It was a big event. It was so big to me, it completely like locked my brain up. I hadn't - could not remember one thing I did that day.

BLOCK: Really.

KELLY: So I had a hard time answering her. So she had this momentous event where she finally asked a question and I had no answer because I was like so happy about it.

BLOCK: It's so poignant because it's a question that most couples - it's the most banal part of their day...

KELLY: Yes.

BLOCK: ...when they come home and say, how was your day?

KELLY: Yeah. And now we're back to that, you know, where we don't even think about it. And she'll ask, you know, every time I come in she'll ask me how my day was. But the first time was a big deal.

BLOCK: How much progress are you seeing with language, say, over the last month or two months?

KELLY: So, you know, in the beginning I'd see sometimes progress day to day. Now I'd say it's week to week. So she's improving all the time. You know, we can have a conversation - it's still - it's difficult for her. You know, she struggles. She gets frustrated. I have to remind her that that's a good thing.

You know, getting frustrated is - from what I understand - is one of those things that's helped rebuild those connections in her brain, is that frustration. So we try to make sure that she's frustrated.

BLOCK: Hmm. Full sentences? Is she...

KELLY: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The challenge for her is stringing the full sentences together. But it's improving all the time.

BLOCK: And physically, where is she in the recovery?

KELLY: Well, she can walk. We just walk to the mailbox and back. It's going to be a while before she runs. Maybe never, I don't know. I'm hopeful. She'll be back on a bicycle, though.

BLOCK: Yeah?

KELLY: Yeah. She used to love riding her bike around Tucson, and she'll be doing that again someday.

BLOCK: There are a lot questions about Congresswoman Giffords and whether she will go back to work, seek re-election in 2012. In the book, you seem to be indicating that she will. You talk about when she goes to work, not if she goes back to work.

KELLY: Yeah, I don't - I'm hopeful. I think it's very possible that she could run in 2012. We don't know yet. She'll have to make that decision sometime after the holidays, I think.

BLOCK: Talk me through that because campaigns are grueling for everyone...

KELLY: They are.

BLOCK: ...much less someone with a traumatic brain injury.

KELLY: She would not be the same campaigner that she was in the past. That's - I mean, she knows that. She would not be able to keep that same grueling campaign schedule. But she was a maniac before.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I mean, she was like the outlier in the amount of work she did. There's a lot of hardworking people in Congress, but I think she was one of the hardest. So, she certainly wouldn't be able to keep that schedule as she had in the past. But, you know, I don't think she needs to. You know, she's a very dedicated public servant. And if she wants to get back to work and represent the people in southern Arizona, they certainly can make that decision on Election Day.

BLOCK: When you think about the Gabrielle Giffords whom you knew on January 7th of this year, and the woman you know now, how different are they? (inaudible)

KELLY: Pretty much the same person. Personality wise, exactly the same. You know, her compassion, dedication to her job and people she serves, and how caring she is for other people, it's all exactly the same.

The thing, the major thing that she struggles with is just the spoken language. And that's improving. You know, she reminds me every single day to deny the acceptance of failure, that she will get better. She'll get back to Arizona. She'll get back to serving her constituents, and she'll do it on her own schedule and when she's ready. But that's where she wants to be.

BLOCK: Mark Kelly, thanks so much.

MARK KELLY: You're welcome.

BLOCK: The book, written with Jeffrey Zaslow, is titled, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." And we end with Gabrielle Giffords reading from the final page in the audio book.

GIFFORDS: (reading) Long ways to go. Grateful to survive. It's frustrating, mentally hard, hard work. I'm trying, trying so hard to get better. I will get stronger. I will return. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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