Giffords making trip home to Tucson
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will return to her hometown of Tucson this weekend for a brief private visit with her family over Father's Day weekend, her office said Friday.
Giffords won't make any public appearances or grant interviews during the visit, her first to Arizona since she was shot through the head Jan. 8.
"We've been dreaming of this trip for some time," said Giffords' husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, in a statement.
"Gabby misses Tucson very much and her doctors have said that returning to her hometown could play an important role in her recovery. It is sure to be very emotional. For this reason, I hope the media understands our need for privacy."
Calling Giffords "determined and goal-oriented," spokesman C.J. Karamargin said that a trip back to Tucson "has been a goal of hers for quite some time."
The visit to Tucson follows Giffords' discharge from TIRR Memorial Hermann and the start of outpatient treatment earlier this week.
"For five long months, Gabby has been living and working in the rehab facility in Houston," Kelly said. "Now that she is an outpatient, her first priority is coming home to the place that is such a source of strength for her."
Giffords will travel by private plane from Houston to Tucson with her husband and one of his two daughters, Giffords office said.
Giffords as frequently expressed her desire to return to Tucson, aides have said.
She was "absolutely elated" to leave the hospital last week, Karamargin said last week.
"Her hometown continues to be a source of strength," Karamargin said.
'This is where her heart is'
The congresswoman is a "daughter of the desert. This is where her heart is," Karamargin said Friday.
Doctors said Giffords' cognitive abilities and physical strength have improved to the point where she no longer needs to remain a patient in the hospital, said Karamargin.
Giffords, who was shot in the head on Jan. 8, has moved to the home of her husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, in League City, Texas, to finish her rehab.
Giffords has a 24-hour home health care worker.
As an outpatient, Giffords' therapy program will not change. She will continue to work with the same rehab team, and her care will continue to be overseen by Dr. Gerard Francisco, the Houston hospital's chief medical officer.
On May 18, Giffords underwent a cranioplasty procedure to replace a portion of her skull that had been removed to relieve the pressure of swelling on her brain. The cranioplasty replaced the missing skull fragment with a ceramic implant, around which bone cells will grow in time.
A permanent shunt was also implanted to drain fluids into her abdominal cavity via a plastic tube. Both procedures were successful. Doctors removed the stitches from the cranioplasty two weeks ago, a final step in the healing process
"Gabby has recovered well from the surgery," said Dr. Dong Kim, director of Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann. "Her wounds have healed, she has resumed full physical therapy without a helmet, and I am comfortable that she can be discharged."
Doctors said that Giffords' two trips to Florida to see the space shuttle blast off with her husband in command helped push her recovery forward, Karamargin said Friday. A trip home will be an even bigger step forward, he said.
'There's nothing like knowing you are home'
"Even when the temperatures hit 100 degrees, there's nothing like knowing you are home," he said.
Giffords had been undergoing rehab at TIRR since Jan. 21, when she was flown to Houston from Tucson.
Giffords' office released two photos of her early Sunday, the first public pictures in which her face can be seen since the Jan. 8 shootings.
The photos were taken May 17, the day between the launch of the space shuttle and Giffords' cranioplasty surgery.
The only images of Giffords since the day of the shooting were a grainy video clip of her climbing the stairway of an airplane when she flew to Florida to see the space shuttle launch.
Information about her condition has been tightly controlled. Doctors have been limited in their statements by privacy laws, and her congressional staff have been careful in their statements.
Five months after she was shot through the brain, Giffords struggles to communicate, an aide told a columnist for the Arizona Republic.
Giffords searches for words and has trouble putting sentences together, said the congresswoman's chief of staff, Pia Carusone, in a piece by E.J. Montini last Thursday.
Speaking directly about Giffords' condition and when she might make a public appearance for the first time since the Jan. 8 shooting that claimed the lives of six others, Carusone said Giffords' "communication skills have been impacted the most."
"If you think of it as someone who is able to communicate with you clearly, it is easy to test them. You can ask them a series of questions and you can get clear answers back. Where as with Gabby what we've been able to infer and what we believe is that her comprehension is very good. I don't know about percentage-wise or not, but it's close to normal if not normal."
Giffords is relying on expressions and gestures, rather than speaking, to completely convey her thoughts, Carusone said.
"She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing. Add it all together and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had the trouble."
After an operation on her skull last month, Carusone told reporters that Giffords' speech was improving, and that she understood abstract concepts.
Giffords "understands, if not everything, close to everything" when presented with complex concepts, Carusone said in May. Giffords is "absolutely curious" about current events, she said.
"She understands sarcastic humor," she said. "Her voice sounds very normal, it sounds as it did before the shooting," she said.
"She's able to fluctuate her volume level" and express being light-hearted or serious with the quality of her voice, Carusone said.
"Her speech is getting better with the constant therapy she's doing."
Giffords was shot through the left side of her brain, which controls speech and language, at a "Congress On Your Corner" meet-and-greet with constituents.
Continuing in office
As I reported on her birthday last week, Giffords' staffers have been relunctant to comment on her plans to continue in office, or run again. Carusone didn't stray much beyond the party line.
"The only firm timetable is the timetable and that is May of 2012, when petitions are due for reelection," Carusone told the Republic. "That's a firm timetable."
"Short of that, we'd love to know today what her life will be, what her quality of life will be, which will determine whether she'll be able to run for office and all sorts of other things involving her life. But we just don't know yet…We're about halfway through the process that is the most important time for recovery. Patients recover for the rest of their lives but it's the first 12 to 14 months that you make the biggest jumps… In the doctors minds it's not even close to when you begin to make the final prognosis for the quality of her life."
While doctors have called Giffords' recovery "miraculous," Carusone said she has a long way to go.
"She's living. She's alive. But if she were to plateau today, and this was as far as she gets, it would not be nearly the quality of life she had before. There's no comparison. All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going and that when she does plateau it will be at a place far away from here."
While some have called upon Giffords to resign her seat, there's been little indication that she will do so any time soon.
Beginning just days after the shooting, others have explored declaring her seat vacant. A state law on vacant offices doesn't apply to federal representatives, and an online petition asking Gov. Jan Brewer to declare a special election has attracted few signatures.
According to the Constitution, members of the House of Representatives can only be forced out of office by a vote by the House. Federal courts have found that states are powerless to set limits on those serving in federal office above those found in the Constitution and federal law.
Accused shooter found incompetent to stand trial
Jared Lee Loughner is accused of killing six and shooting Giffords in the head in what authorities charge was an assassination attempt.
Among those killed were a nine-year-old girl and Arizona's presiding federal judge.
He also is charged with wounding 12 others at the "Congress On Your Corner" meet and greet with constituents at a Northwest Side grocery store on the morning of Jan. 8.
He was found incompetent to stand trial last month, and was sent to a federal facility in Missouri for treatment to restore his ability to understand the charges against him and participate in his defense.
In March, Loughner was charged with 49 federal counts in the attack. Not guilty pleas were entered on his behalf by the court.
Fourteen of the charges Loughner faces could result in the death penalty, if the prosecution seeks it. No decision of whether to ask for capital punishment has been made, authorities have said.
Loughner likely will face local charges in the shooting incident, authorities have said, but only after the federal case is resolved.