01.09.11

Gabrielle Giffords' Prognosis Hopeful After Shooting

After being shot in the head, Rep. Giffords is under sedation and responding to simple commands. Casey Schwartz talks to a neurosurgeon about the AZ congresswoman's diagnosis.

• Giffords has given the thumbs up sign and tried to grab her breathing tube, according to doctors on Monday, both heartening signs. "When she did that, we were having a party in there," her doctor said.

Giffords’ doctors say they are “more and more encouraged” by her progress and the swelling in her brain is not worsening.

In the wake of Saturday’s tragic news—six dead and Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition after being shot in the head by gunman Jared Lee Loughner—there’s a widespread attempt to decode the few pieces of information coming from the University Medical Center in Tucson where Giffords is staying.

Giffords, who took a single bullet to the brain, was rushed into surgery Saturday afternoon.

Speaking on Sunday at a news conference, doctors reported that Giffords was able to respond to simple commands, that could be anything as simple as "please squeeze your hand or show us two fingers," but that she was not able to speak. Giffords is in a medically induced coma and remains on a ventilator.

However, the fact that Giffords is able to respond to commands is a critical indicator that offers some hope for her recovery.

“If she is following commands then she has a good chance of pulling through,” said Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a neurosurgeon and head of the Brain Trauma Foundation in New York City. The chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center, Dr. Michael Lemole, said on Sunday that he is “cautiously optimistic” about her recovery. However simple the commands Giffords is responding to may seem, said Lemole, “they imply a very high level of functioning in the brain."

"The things that are most concerning to us is if the bullet crosses from one hemisphere to the other, from one side to the other," he said. "That was not the case.”

According to Giffords’ doctors, the bullet traveled through the left hemisphere of her brain, from back to front. The left hemisphere is the most crucial for language function, and it is possible that Giffords’ inability to speak is the result of a disruption to these left-sided language centers.

According to Giffords’ doctors, the bullet traveled through the left hemisphere of her brain, from back to front.

Many news outlets reported that Giffords had woken up late Saturday night following brain surgery and recognized her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, said on Meet the Press Sunday morning that she’d been told that Giffords “woke up, responded to her husband, and then they sedated her again.”

However, Darci Slaten, a spokeswoman for the University Medical Center, contradicted these reports. “She’s not talking to anybody,” Slaten said.

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Also interviewed on ABC News Sunday morning was the apparent hero of the senseless massacre. Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ 20-year-old intern and a trained nurse, rushed to the congresswoman’s side in the seconds following the shooting and administered basic triage techniques: holding her upright to protect her ability to breathe and putting pressure on her head wound to stop the bleeding. At this point, Hernandez said, “The congresswoman was alert and conscious.”

 

“If you can hear me Gabby just hold my hand to let me know you’re OK,” Hernandez said he told Giffords. She held his hand, but was unable to vocalize a response. Dr. Ghajar noted over email that, “Sometimes gunshot victims are awake immediately after being shot and then go into coma from the brain swelling.”

Dr. Peter M. Rhee, the head of trauma at the University Medical Center said he was “as optimistic as you can get in this situation,” but that it’s still too early to determine the outcome for Giffords .

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a Masters Degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.