This Time, for Gabrielle Giffords’s Sake, Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

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Photo: U.S. Congress

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Tucson, the media zeroed in on an irresistible narrative: Overheated political rhetoric had sparked a tragedy. Pundits rushed to judgment, conservatives went on the counterattack, and Sarah Palin assumed her usual role at the center of the maelstrom.

Within a matter of days it became clear that shooter Jared Loughner was a deranged misfit, unaffected by current politics, who had been fixated on Giffords for years. After an emotional speech by President Obama, the current consensus finally solidified: The Tucson shooting was a tragedy caused by a disturbed young man, and if there is any reason why politicians should behave more civilly in the aftermath, it is to honor Giffords and the other victims.

But now we're doing the same thing all over again: prewriting the Giffords narrative in a way that is almost certain to gloss over a difficult reality. Her recovery from the gunshot wound to her head has been described as a miracle. And thus far it has been — as is her very survival. But her complete recovery is very, very far from certain. And the press's breathless coverage of every daily improvement has led to expectations that will almost surely lead to disappointment.

Giffords's husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly, spoke to reporters on Friday as she was being prepared to be moved to a rehabilitation center in Houston: "I imagine the next step is here she'll be walking, talking," he said. "And in two months you'll see her walking through the front door of this building."

It's Kelly's job to imagine exactly that. And her supporters should pray for it. But buried in the story are these warnings from her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole: "She's scrolling through an iPad. These are all fantastic advancements forward. They do indicate higher cognitive function," he said. "But I do want to caution everyone that she has a long road ahead of her." Lemole explained that "it's not uncommon for people to initially improve, then plateau."

In fact, the structure of most of these stories is this: Lead with the startling, happy news of the speed of her recovery, and then bury the caveats down below. That way, you'll see headlines about Nancy Pelosi predicting Giffords will get back to work, with quotes from actual doctors who actually know what they are talking about only appearing deep into the story. When doctors do appear in headlines, they are "confident" or at least optimistic. But for what? That she'll be the same person she used to be? If you read closely, not quite.

It's easy to imagine a sunny scenario in which Giffords makes a quick and complete recovery, returns promptly to work in Congress, and maybe runs for higher office one day. If this were a movie (and surely such pitches are already being made), that's how it would end. But real life unfortunately isn't so neat. Plateau or no plateau, her family may well decide it is in her better interest to quit Congress while she recuperates.

Getting shot can do a lot of things to a person's reputation. For Pope John Paul II, surviving gunshot wounds in the abdomen made him seem like a saint. For 50 Cent, getting shot nine times made him seem like a badass. When Larry Flynt was shot and left paralyzed, it made him into an unlikely hero. And when Ronald Reagan was shot, it burnished his aura as a resolute movie star (he told his surgeons before they operated: "I hope you're all Republicans!").

Shot alongside Reagan that day was his press secretary, James Brady. Like Giffords, he was hit in the head with a bullet, was initially reported to have died from the injury, and underwent a startling and seemingly miraculous recovery. He went on to become an anti-gun advocate and columnist and is still alive today. But the recovery was long and hard. In the short term, he had difficulty controlling his emotions. For years, he struggled with slurred speech, memory loss, and partial paralysis.

An article on Nature.com explained Giffords's medical obstacles, and Brady's own doctor offered this caution: "Do I think she could return to work as a congresswoman? Yes," Dr. Arthur Kobrine said. "But possible isn't the same as likely."

After ABC World News Tonight co-anchor Bob Woodruff suffered brain damage from getting hit with shrapnel from a roadside bomb in Iraq, for example, he eventually returned to the air. Only, he didn't get his old job back; after reporting some specials for ABC, he now has a show on the Planet Green network. In an essay, he noted that Giffords's condition seemed to be less dire than his was. "She responded to verbal commands by the doctors and reacted by squeezing their finger, indicating she understood, although she could not speak," he wrote. "I never heard the words and never squeezed my doctors' fingers when they tried to get me to respond." She has since improved drastically, waking up, standing on her own, and interacting with her family.

It will likely be at least four months, he observed, before doctors can replace the portion of her skull they removed to relieve swelling. Hopefully by then her fractured eye socket will have healed as well. But both injuries mean that the lovely young woman will never look quite the same. In the absence of up-to-date images, we've been treated to the same stock images of Giffords's perky, smiling face (like the one above). Even with the proper preparation, seeing what she looks like even halfway through her rehab could come as a shock.

It is still very possible that Gabrielle Giffords will make a full recovery. She has the support of family, colleagues, and a now-enraptured American public. But it would be an additional, needless tragedy if the breathless coverage of her rehabilitation eventually turned sour, or if the inevitable setbacks and delays made her already amazing recovery seem any less like a miracle. Hopefully, in rehab, she'll be able to recover away from the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle, and when she does emerge, we will still be surprised by something wonderful.