The Long Recovery After Severe Brain Trauma: ‘Gabby and I Went Up to That Line of Death and Bounced Back’

Nov 14, 2011 9:37pm

It is certainly unusual and sometimes uncomfortable as reporters to cover a story about someone else while placing ourselves in the script.

I remember exactly where I was, in my office in New York,  when the news broke about Gabby Giffords being shot in the head.  We didn’t find out exactly who the shooter was until several hours later but the reporting was not encouraging. Although there were initial reports that she had not survived, the bulk of the news slowly began to leak out that the bullet had pierced through the left side of her head.  From the very beginning I truly felt, like many others, that she would live but it would be a long, long road of recovery.

As more details were released about the condition of her brain I predicted she would need to have part of her left skull removed just as I had.  Medically it is called a craniectomy, an increasingly effective procedure that allows her brain to swell freely so that the blood and cells are not so squeezed against the bone, cutting off the oxygen and destroying her tissue.

It was odd that I knew about this medical topic but it turned out it was so similar to my surgery after I was nearly killed by an IED detonated by an insurgent more than five years ago on a road in Iraq.  Within a couple hours after the attack army surgeons removed 16 centimeters of my skull.  It was on the same side as Gabby’s and about the exact same size.  It is the same side of the brain that activates our ability to speak and in some cases our ability to comprehend at all.

With all of those facts all I could think about was this change in her life.  She was in a coma with an unpredictable future.  How could her husband Mark Kelly understand how she feels?  Will she ever speak or walk again?

Doctors told me that only about 5 percent of those shot in the brain survive.  The soldiers who were with me in Iraq certainly risked their lives, rushing out of their vehicles to fire back, but most of the troops there truly expected me to die. For some reason Gabby and I went up to that line of death and bounced back while others passed through it.

Gabby Giffords’ story is one that has moved so many people. It has given hope to other families who are facing the same kind of rehabilitation.  A lot of people around the world have called her recovery a “miracle.”  and they said that about mine as well.  But I never like to use that word.  If we are a miracle then where is the miracle to save so many others. There are times when I feel guilty about surviving while others did not.

Now that this energetic and driven congresswoman is searching for her path, her adventure will be forever unclear.  How long will it take for her to recover her words that she lost because of the bullet?  What I know for sure is that she will be regaining her syllables and expression for decades.  Her hill will be steep in the first couple of years, then level out but nevertheless still rising.  The experts about brain injuries know the truth about prediction.  One of my favorite speech therapists, Mary Hibbard, summarized it best.   On her desk was a crystal ball which she handed to me when I asked her to tell me the truth.  ”You can look into it,” she told me. “But we just can’t see what is there.”

Watch ABC’s Bob Woodruff’s report on “Nightline” tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

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