Giffords Puts Recovery First; Leaves Open a Return to Congress

Jan 23, 2012 11:21am

The decision by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.,  to resign from the U.S. House of Representatives and focus on her recovery was the right one, both for her and her constituents, experts say.

The three-term Democrat announced her decision in a video posted Sunday.

“I have more work to do on my recovery,” Giffords says in the two-minute message. “So to do what’s best for Arizona, I will step down this week.”

Giffords was shot in the head in January 2011 during a political meet-and-great outside a supermarket in Tucson. Six people died and 12 people, including Giffords, were injured.

“I don’t remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice,” she says in the video. “I will return. And we will work together for Arizona and this great country.”

Despite months of cutting-edge rehabilitation, Giffords’ speech remains slow and labored — lingering evidence of the traumatic brain injury caused by the bullet shot at point-blank range.

“This does not communicate a failure of rehab; it means that rehab is a lifelong process, and once an individual sustains a brain injury it becomes a chronic disease that has to be managed,” said Dr. Gregory O’Shanick, medical director at the Brain Injury Association of America in Virginia. “It would be a monumental feat for her to continue in Congress, and equally monumental for her to return.”

Giffords thanked supporters for their prayers, and for giving her time to recover, but experts say her recovery is far from finished.

“This does not mean that she will not recover sufficiently to return to Congress in the future, just not right now,” said Dr. David Lacey, medical director of rehabilitation services at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem, N.C. “Given how well she did on the video, her recovery to date has been very remarkable and bodes well for her future recovery.”

Giffords underwent intensive therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston to regain her speech and her strength. Since leaving TIRR in June, she continues to receive outpatient treatment.

“Her decision is based on a realistic view that her recovery is a marathon not a sprint,” says Dr. Wayne Gordon, associate director of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Her rehabilitation is intense and time consuming.”

Indeed, time spent in Congress would detract from time dedicated to rehab, says Dr. Thomas McAllister, professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. But even with the extra time devoted to her recovery, Giffords may never make it back to where she was, says McAllister.

“It is important to highlight that no matter how hard people ‘work’ and ‘try’ at rehab, the extent and location of the injury may not permit a return to prior function,” he says. “She can control how hard she works, and she can have great therapists, but she cannot control the outcome. We can only hope for the best.”

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