Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
of Arizona, who was shot in the head Saturday in a Tucson shooting rampage in which she was the apparent target, is able to understand and "follow simple commands" after two hours of brain surgery and doctors say they are "cautiously optimistic" about her condition.
Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center, said the gunman's bullet had entered Giffords' brain on the left side, from back to front. While any wound of that type means her condition is "still very precarious at this time," Dr. Peter Rhee, another of the surgeons who operated on her, said she averted the "most concerning" kind of trajectory in which a bullet goes to the center of the brain or passes through one hemisphere into the other.
"Overall this is about as good as it is going to get," said Rhee, in terms of the bullet not causing as much damage as it might have. He added that he was "cautiously optimistic."
The left side of the brain controls strength and sensation on a person's right side, as well as speech functions in most people.
Lemole said doctors have been able to communicate with Giffords, getting her to "follow simple commands" when she is conscious. However, she cannot speak, in part because she is on a ventilator.
Doctors have put Giffords into a medically induced coma, as part of efforts to reduce the swelling of the brain that occurs after such a trauma, but they reduce the sedatives and wake her up periodically to check her progress.
Part of the reason Giffords has survived is that paramedics got her to the hospital in 38 minutes, the doctors said. Lemole said there was not extensive bleeding when she arrived and they immediately undertook the procedures to relieve brain swelling by removing part of her skull. They also removed "devitalized" pieces of her brain, but Lemole said the amount that had to be removed was minimal.
The part of the skull that was removed can later be replaced.
As far as prospects for recovery, Lemole said, "We talk about recovery in months to years."
In addition to Giffords, six people were killed and 13 others wounded.
One of the dead was 9-year-old Christina Green
, whom doctors were unsuccessful in resuscitating when she arrived at the hospital.
Three of the shooting victims are still in serious condition while the others have been moved out of intensive care and some are in the process of being discharged.
The shooting rampage occurred shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday when Giffords was attending what she called a "Congress on Your Corner" event to meet and talk with constituents outside a Safeway supermarket. Giffords represents Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
A gunman – the suspect is 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner
, a young man with a troubled history – barged through the gathering and opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon, killing six people and wounding 14 others, including Giffords who was shot in the head.
One of the fatalities was John Roll
, Arizona's chief federal trial judge.
Among others killed in the attack was a member of Giffords' staff, 30-year-old Gabe Zimmerman, director of community outreach, C.J. Karamargin, the congresswoman's press secretary, said Saturday evening in an interview with CNN. Also killed in the rampage were 9-year-old Christina Green
, 76-year-old Dorothy Morris, 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard and 79-year-old Phyllis Schneck, the sheriff's office said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said at a Sunday briefing that Giffords appeared to be the intended target.
Giffords remained conscious in the moments immediately after the shooting, according to Daniel Hernandez
, an intern who had just started working for her.
Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County said that, after the shooting, "two brave individuals at this crime scene tackled the suspect."
Loughner is said not to be cooperating with the investigation, although the FBI's Mueller declined to comment on that.
By several accounts, Loughner had long exhibited erratic behavior that surfaced in rambling postings on his MySpace page, YouTube videos and classes he attended at Pima Community College in Tucson.
One of his videos prompted college officials to suspend him and tell his parents that he would have to get a mental health evaluation if he wanted to return to school, according to The New York Times
. Loughner attended Pima from the summer of 2005 until October when he withdrew after his suspension.
Loughner tried to enlist in the Army in 2008 and took a physical. But First Sgt. Brian Homme, a Tucscon recruiter, told the Arizona Daily Star
that he was rejected as unqualified. Citing confidentiality rules, the Army did not make public its reasons. The Washington Post reported today that the rejection was related to a drug inquiry
that is part of the Army's routine screening process.