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Giffords standing up and using iPad

TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Just 12 days after she was shot in the head, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords can stand with assistance, has tried to speak and is using an iPad, doctors and her husband said on Thursday.

University Medical Center's Peter Rhee (L) and Michael Lemole (R) join Mark Kelly, husband of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as he speaks during a news conference at the University Medical Center where Giffords is recovering in Tucson, Arizona January 20, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

In a key turning point in the congresswoman’s recuperation, Giffords is to be moved on Friday from the Tucson hospital where she has remained since the shooting to a special rehabilitation facility in Houston, Texas.

At a news conference on her last full day at University Medical Center in Tucson, doctors said she has come a long way in a short time given the severity of her injury.

“She is beginning to stand with assistance, she is scrolling through an iPad -- these are all fantastic advances for her. They do show higher cognitive function,” Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurology at UMC told reporters.

“But I do want to caution ... that she has a long road ahead of her,” he added.

Giffords, 40, was shot through the head on January 8 when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of constituents gathered to meet her outside a Tucson supermarket. Six bystanders including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl were killed, and 13 others were wounded, Giffords among them.

A 22-year-old college dropout, Jared Lee Loughner, is charged with the shooting.

Giffords’ husband, astronaut and shuttle commander Mark Kelly, said at the news conference he is confident his wife ultimately will “make a full recovery.”

“I’ve told her that,” he said. “She’ll be walking and talking in two months. You’ll see her walking through the front door of this building.”

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Kelly said he believes his wife already has tried to speak but remains unable to do so because of the breathing tube inserted into her windpipe through her neck.

“I feel she’s made some attempts,” he said.

“She has a tracheostomy. Intellectually, she knows that’s there, She knows what that means. In my mind, she’s made some attempts.”

Kelly also said he and his spouse are tremendously thankful for the outpouring of support they have received, especially from fellow residents of Tucson.

“One of the first things Gabby’s going to want to do as soon as she’s able is to start writing thank-you notes, and I’ve already reminded her of that.”

Dr. Peter Rhee, the hospital’s trauma medical director, was vague when asked how much Giffords is believed to know about the circumstances of the shooting. He said she has not been told much about the attack and doctors are unsure what if anything she remembers of the incident.

Rhee said doctors planned later in the day to give Giffords what they suggested would be her first direct exposure to sunlight in 12 days by rolling her in a wheelchair onto an outdoor deck adjacent to the intensive care unit.

On Friday, Giffords will be transported to the TIRR Memorial Hermann Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston, a world-class facility that treats people for conditions ranging from brain and spinal cord injury to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The plan is to drive her from UMC to an airport in Tucson, then fly her by air ambulance to Houston, where she likely will be flown by helicopter to the Memorial Hermann facility, doctors said.

Memorial Hermann is regarded as one of the leading facilities of its kind in the nation. Kelly said its relative proximity to Houston, where he has family and where NASA has a major presence, were also considerations in its selection.

Writing and additional reporting by Tim Gaynor and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton