"Recovery from most trauma is a biological process, but the unquantifiable element is the will to progress," Dr. Bruce Chabner, clinical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, said. "Without it, any recovery is difficult. Especially in recovery from a neurological injury, which is a notoriously slow and painstaking process, will is key in sustaining progress."
Rep. Wasserman Schultz noted that Giffords' efforts to open her eyes, which took about 30 seconds of effort, seemed motivated by sheer will, and said that they could see "all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband."
By bolstering the patients motivation to soldier on through the difficult stages of healing, having loved ones around can be essential to the recovery process, many doctors note.
Dr. Alan Weintraub, medical director of the Brain Injury Program at Craig Hospital in Denver, said that because family members can often elicit response or action in brain trauma patients, more so than health professionals, he tells families that they "are the medicine for wakefulness and purpose."
"The core emotional centers of the brain are very deep and frequently provide the fuel to jump-start a person's more wakeful and purposeful capacities," he added.
With Giffords, Lemole said, her response to her husband and her friends shows that not just the parts of her brain that process simple commands are there "but the parts of the brain that allow us to wake from sleeping. She's starting to become aware of her surroundings ...," he said, "and that's an important step in her recovery."