HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords arrived in Texas on Friday to start the next phase of her recovery at a Houston rehabilitation center following 13 days of treatment at an Arizona hospital for a gunshot wound to the head.
Doctors told a news conference after the congresswoman’s arrival that Giffords’ transfer went “flawlessly.” They said she would begin physical therapy on Friday but remain for now in the intensive care unit because of a drain in place to remove a buildup of fluid in her skull, which puts her at higher risk for infection.
Giffords, 40, left Tucson’s University Medical Center by ambulance earlier in the day and was flown from an Air Force base in Arizona to a Houston airport aboard a private jet owned by Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta.
She and her entourage were then whisked by three helicopters to the rooftop of the Memorial Hermann hospital, and she was admitted to the neurological-trauma intensive care unit for immediate evaluation.
The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at the hospital is renowned for its treatment of brain and spinal cord injuries. Once she is out of the intensive care unit, doctors said, she still faces at least four to six months of intensive therapy to recover.
Giffords suffered a gunshot wound to the head at close range on January 8 when a gunman opened fire at an event where she was meeting with constituents. Doctors have described her progress so far as nothing short of a miracle.
Dr. John Holcomb, trauma surgeon at Memorial Hermann, said the bullet wound “could have been a lot worse.”
“Clearly it did not damage large portions of her brain. It did damage some portions,” he said.
Giffords is wearing a specially fitted helmet to protect her brain, which remains partially exposed after doctors removed part of her skull in surgery.
Dr. Dong Kim, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School, said Giffords was “alert, awake, calm” when she arrived and “she looked comfortable.”
“She’s got very good movement on the left side of her body” but “varying stages of what we would call either paralysis or weakness” on her right, Kim said. “She didn’t like us shining the light in her eye,” which he said was a good sign. “She just looks spectacular.”
Giffords was accompanied on her 900-mile flight from Tucson to Texas by her astronaut-husband Mark Kelly, her mother and a medical team from Tucson.
Scores of well-wishers, some with “Get Well Gabby” signs and American flags, lined the streets near the hospital in Tucson to wave and applaud as Giffords was driven by ambulance from the hospital in a police-led motorcade.
Kelly is scheduled to command NASA’s last planned space shuttle mission in April. Giffords’ relocation allows him to be closer to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where his crew is currently in training. He has remained at her side almost constantly since she was shot.
Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old college dropout, is charged with the shooting. Six bystanders including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl were killed in the incident, and 13 others were wounded, Giffords among them.
The shootings sparked a national debate about whether vitriolic political discourse was encouraging violence against politicians and whether stricter gun-control measures should be adopted in the United States.
Additional reporting by Brad Poole in Tucson and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Will Dunham