Jan. 10, 2011 -- Doctors treating U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords called the congresswoman "a miracle" and said today that they have " a lot of hope" for her recovery.
"The fact that she can listen, hear and follow commands is fairly high-level thinking," said Dr. Peter Rhee, medical director of University Medical Center's trauma and critical care. He said the "vast majority" of patients with a similar injury wind up in a vegetative state.
Giffords' neurosurgeon, Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., told ABC News' Diane Sawyer today that as he raced to the hospital to perform the congresswoman's surgery, he was hearing conflicting reports on the radio about whether the congresswoman had already died or was clinging to life. When he called in to confirm, he was told that her vital signs were good.
"I think she is a miracle just the way she presented to us," he said using the medical jargon for her condition when she arrived at the hospital. "That whole last little bit of the conversation saying how unique it was that she presented that she was able to follow commands with this kind of severe injury. That in and of itself is a miracle," Lemole said. "We can't control that. And when we're dealt that hand, we are very thankful."
Lemole and Rhee told Sawyer that Giffords was part of a "very small group" of patients who survive this type of injury.
Giffords, Rhee said, has held up two fingers on command and can squeeze their hands when requested.
"I don't know if she's going to be able to do some of the things she used to be able to with her thoughts and with complexity of thoughts, but we we won't have that chance if she couldn't give us two fingers," Rhee said.
"Is she going to be completely normal as before? Of course there's going to be some deficits, whether it's a scar on her head or inside her brain or function, and we don't know," he said. "But I got a lot of hope."
Giffords, 40, wasshot in the head at point blank range as she stood outside a Tucson supermarket hosting a community meeting.
The gunman killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and wounded 14.
The bullet entered the back of Giffords' head and exited out her forehead.
Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at Arizona's University Medical Center, had harsh words for Giffords alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
"I've heard so much political diatribe. Is this conservative or liberal, is this Tea Party or Progressive? To me this is sane versus insane. Civilized versus barbaric," Lemole said.
"This guy is just beyond the pale. And that's all I can really think about him, because it doesn't make sense and you can't make sense of such a senseless act," he said.
Though some have described Giffords as a "fighter," Rhee said she was too heavily medicated for her spirit to shine though.
"She's too controlled by us and the drugs and the medications that we give. I think we'll see that more in ... the more important part during the rehabilitative phase," Rhee said. "When she's a fighter and she's going to do that extra piece of work to get back to the functional, make her brain learn the skills and tasks. I think that's going to be the time when it really might make a difference."
Despite Bullet to the Head, Giffords 'Has Already Beat a Lot of Odds'
Rhee and Lemole said today they were "slightly more optimistic" about Giffords recovery after a CAT scan showed that the swelling in Giffords' brain has not increased.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Lemole said during a news conference at the hospital. "At this phase in the game no change is good, and we have no change."
A major concern for the doctors is to control the swelling in Giffords' brain. They have put the 40-year-old Democrat in an induced coma and removed part of her skull to ease the stress and pressure on the brain.
Lemole said there may be "a collective sigh of relief around the third or fourth day. We're getting close."
He warned, however, that it's not uncommon for swelling to fluctuate in the days after an injury like hers, but said, "Every day that goes by and we don't see an increase we are slightly more optimistic."
Lemole also said that Giffords continues to respond to "basic commands," but declined to specify her movements or what kinds of commands she has been given.
"When I say someone follows simple commands it could be someone showing their thumb, showing two fingers," he said, adding that Giffords is still on a breathing tube and cannot speak.
Giffords is one of eight patients at UMC and one of two in the intensive care unit.
Doctors at UMC say several of the patients have already undergone surgery, including Giffords, and that more surgeries for some of them are still needed.
"We've have vascular injuries, we've had orthopedic injuries, we've had extremity injuries as well," said Dr. Rhee.
All are expected to survive, he said.
While Giffords' team of doctors remain focused on her head injury, they are already preparing for the psychiatric care that she and her fellow shooting victims will need in the weeks and months after the physical recovery has ended.
Depression and post traumatic stress disorder in the patients and their caregivers is common, Rhee said, after a trauma like this.
""We have psychiatrists in house, social workers, some of the best in the country in here," he said.
ABC News' Chief Health and Medical Expert Dr. Richard Besser said the bullet's trajectory is the reason she's still alive, noting that 90 percent of people shot in the head do not survive.
"She has already beat a lot of odds," he said. "Bullets that stay in the head do a lot more damage."