Gabrielle Giffords Completes Skull Surgery in Houston

It's an important step in her fight to recover after she was shot in the head.

ByABC News
May 17, 2011, 11:00 PM

May 18, 2011— -- ABC News has been told that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had cranioplasty surgery at Memorial Hospital in Houston this morning – an important step in her fight to recover from an attempted assassination in Tucson earlier this year.

A reliable source confirmed this afternoon that the surgery was complete and Giffords was doing well.

While she was in the operating room, the other half of this high-powered couple, astronaut Mark Kelly, spent the early hours of the morning guiding the space shuttle Endeavour through the complicated maneuvers to dock with the International Space Station.

"It's good to be back," he said after shuttle and station were joined. Kelly, a veteran of three previous space flights, last visited the space station in June 2008.

After the Tucson shooting, in which six people died and 13, including Giffords, were injured, Kelly said he asked NASA temporarily to hand off command of Endeavour's flight preparations to a fellow astronaut. Only after several weeks, he said, was he confident that his wife was in good hands and wanted him to go on this, his last chance to fly in space.

Giffords' mother Gloria was with her at the hospital today and Kelly's twin brother Scott, also an astronaut, was there as well. Sources said the operation typically takes two hours.

Giffords was well enough to watch her husband launch on his delayed mission – the 25th and final flight of Endeavour.

Pia Carusone, Giffords' Chief of Staff, reported she was delighted with the launch, saying, "Good stuff, good stuff."

Carusone said Kelly is able to communicate with his wife while he is on orbit.

"She will have her blackberry on her more than usual. Mark has the phone number and the email address where he can reach her from space so I'm sure she'll have that close by her side," Carusone said.

During emergency surgery after she was shot, a portion of her skull was removed to ease the stress and pressure on her brain, as swelling was expected to continue throughout the first part of her recovery. In today's procedure, a team led by Dr. Dong Kim inserted a plastic replacement, its shape generated by computer to match the shape of the lost bone.

A few weeks after her initial surgery, doctors inserted a small drain in Giffords' skull to remove the brain fluid that had accumulated – not an uncommon complication for someone with a traumatic brain injury.

Giffords has spent the last few months in therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston – convenient for her husband, whose training was based at the Johnson Space Center, not far away.

He developed a routine with his wife during her rehabilitation, supported by a devoted network of family and friends.

During a briefing in February he said his decision to fly again was supported by her improvement.

"I take her coffee and a newspaper in the morning, she wakes at 8 a.m. and spends six hours a day in speech, physical and occupational therapy."

Kelly and his five crewmates are scheduled to land early on June 1, one week before Giffords' 41st birthday.

ABC News' Dan Childs and Ned Potter contributed to this report.