Last week, Gabrielle Giffords made headlines by asking for toast for breakfast. The congresswoman, who was shot in the head on January 8 by a deranged killer, seemed to be continuing her miraculous recovery. After a thrilling (but also frustrating) initial round of breathless press coverage about her many rapid improvements, Giffords slipped from the public eye for a couple of weeks as she began the difficult and long rehabilitation process. This morning, the Times has a detailed account of how far she's come, and an honest reckoning of how far she has to go.
Giffords has been walking, with the help of a shopping cart, for some time now. And she can mouth words and speak, to some effect. She spoke briefly with her brother-in-law in space (he, like her husband, Mark Kelly, is an astronaut). Using a technique known to help rebuild the brain's speech center, doctors have been encouraging her to sing. The part of the brain that controls singing, you may remember from The King's Speech, is close to — but not the same as — the one that controls speech. She can do "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and sang "Happy Birthday" to her husband. She sits up with good posture and is doing exercises like squats to maintain her strength. The portion of her skull that was removed to relieve swelling is scheduled to be replaced a month earlier than expected. And she seems to understand at least the basics of what people say to her.
The Times soberly fills its story with informative caveats. For example:
The human brain has what amounts to redundant circuits for some simple tasks, like walking, and it is possible for patients to make rapid progress on those skills and still have trouble with mental work and speaking, doctors said. “There are backup systems in the brain for the more basic functions that have been around longer in human beings,” said Dr. Jonathan Fellus, the director of the Brain Injury Program at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey. “Conversely, for things such as language, which are uniquely human, it’s a highly specialized and delicate network that doesn’t get reconstructed so easily.”
It's unclear so far the extent to which the functions of Giffords's mind have been affected. It's common for patients with injuries like hers to live with communication difficulties or a markedly changed personality. So far, it seems like her family and loved ones are optimistic but understand these realities. The same can't be said for Democrats in Washington, though. The very day Arizona senator Jon Kyl announced he wouldn't run for reelection in 2012, Senate Democrats were discussing the possibility that Giffords could run to
support replace him.