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Mark Kelly Tells Of Giffords' 'Courage' In Recovery

Mark Kelly has a new book about his wife, Rep. Gabby Giffords, and her road to recovery since she was shot in the head on Jan. 8.
Courtesy of P.K. Weis
Mark Kelly has a new book about his wife, Rep. Gabby Giffords, and her road to recovery since she was shot in the head on Jan. 8.

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 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.

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.

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.

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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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.