TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords suffered what her doctors on Sunday called a “devastating wound” to her brain in a point-blank shooting, but the bullet’s relatively benign trajectory bodes well for her recovery.
For doctors at the University Medical Center in Tucson, the fact that the bullet did not cross from one hemisphere to the other nor through the center of the brain was crucial to Giffords’ brain “preservation” before her two-hour surgery on Saturday.
“Because of that, congresswoman Giffords is able to communicate with us this morning through following simple commands,” said Dr. Michael Lemole, head of neurosurgery.
A suspect, identified as Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol at a meeting held by Giffords outside a Tucson supermarket on Saturday, killing six people including a 9-year-old girl. Fourteen people were wounded.
Giffords, a 40-year-old Democratic lawmaker, did not have severe bleeding in the brain nor large sections of devitalized brain tissue, Lemole said.
But doctors insisted it was nevertheless a brutal injury.
“This wasn’t a little grazing wound to the brain. This was a devastating wound that traveled the entire length of the brain on the left side,” said Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma medical director at UMC.
The bullet appeared to have entered the back of the head and exited above Giffords’ eyebrow, he added.
Twenty-four hours after the shooting, Giffords remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit with half her skull removed to permit the brain to swell. Rhee said brain swelling was her biggest threat.
She can’t yet open her eyes and she can’t speak because she is on a ventilator, but she can squeeze a hand and hold up fingers, doctors said.
“We take those type of simple commands for granted, but they imply a very high level of functioning in the brain,” said Lemole.
In most people, the left side of the brain controls their right-side strength sensation and their speech function, the ability to both speak and understand speech.
Rhee said Giffords will suffer some degeneration of brain cells and matter.
“This is very early in her course, we don’t know what the deficits will be in the future,” Rhee said.
While cautiously optimistic, the doctors could not conceal their relief about the area of the brain that was hit.
“There are obvious areas of the brain that are less tolerant to intrusion,” said Lemole.
And Rhee noted the ability of the body to permit brain trauma victims like Giffords to recover and lead meaningful lives.
“With a penetrating brain injury it is always surprising to the lay people that you think any bullet going into any brain means instant death,” Rhee said. “But there is a lot of capacity that the human body has to compensate.”
Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Eric Beech