In a hospital news conference today, Lemole reported that Giffords has reached several milestones in her recovery since that visit. Although she remains in critical condition, Giffords has been yawning, rubbing her eyes, moving both right and left sides of her body, and continues to respond to commands. She has also begun physical therapy and was sitting up with her feet dangling off the bed.
"The most important thing with neurological recovery is consistency," he said, noting that ongoing responses to prompts from her friends and family is a good sign.
Concerning her first voluntary eye opening Wednesday in the presence of friends from the Senate and Congress, he said, "It was the combination of the unexpected but the familiar [that] really inspired her to open her eyes and look around. This is the part that doctors have the hardest time with. We can't quantify that component that family and friends bring, but we know that it exists."
When asked if Giffords' recovery should be considered miraculous, he replied: "Yes, miracles happen everyday and, in medicine, we like to contribute them to what we do [as doctors], but a lot of medicine is outside our control and we're wise to acknowledge miracles."
The next step in gauging Giffords' progress will be the removal of the breathing tube and assessment of her verbal ability, but this will not occur for a few days, he said.
Past research showing the positive healing affects of prayer (even when the patient is unaware that they are being prayed for) has been controversial, but most doctors admit that they can see the difference in a patient's response, healing and mood when they are cared for and touched in a loving way.
"There is no question that love and support from family, friends and others one is close to can make an enormous difference in the recovery process," said Nadine Kaslow, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.
Other doctors noted that providing reassuring touch as a doctor was also an important element to encouraging healing.
"I ... believe that a doctor's 'healing touch' is very important to patients," Dr. Joan Von Feldt, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said. "The patients somehow feel reassured when you lay your hand on their shoulder, or place your hand on their forearm. It may be placebo, or it may not be, but I believe that if patients think they are cared for or loved, they improve."
But quantifying the extent to which loving touch or emotional support affects recovery, as Lemole noted in the news conference, is difficult, if not impossible, leaving some doctors dubious about whether the presence of loved ones, especially in instances of coma or unconsciousness, really has any impact.
There is preliminary research from Northwestern University, however, that suggests that even those in comas may benefit from having familiar voices around. Theresa Pape, a research assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern, has found that those in a vegetative show brain activation when listening to familiar voices, but not to unfamiliar voices. Another study is underway to determine if listening to recorded "stories" told by family members several times a day will help speed neurological recovery for those with traumatic brain injury.