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Gabrielle Giffords' condition continues to improve, doctor says

Giffords opened her eyes after he visited her, President Obama says. She is making 'spontaneous movements' such as feeling her wounds and adjusting her hospital gown, says Dr. Peter Rhee of University Medical Center.

January 13, 2011|By Seema Mehta and Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tucson and Los Angeles — President Obama said that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes Wednesday shortly after he visited her, news that drew resounding cheers from the thousands who gathered to hear Obama speak at a memorial service for the Tucson shooting victims.

"Gabby opened her eyes, so I can tell you, she knows we're here, and she knows we love her," Obama told the crowd at the University of Arizona.

The development was more good news on a day when Giffords continued to show signs of recovery with "spontaneous movements" such as feeling her wounds and adjusting her hospital gown, Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of the trauma division at University Medical Center in Tucson, said earlier in the day.

"She's getting better every day, and she's making more and more spontaneous movements," he said. "She was able to actually even feel her wounds herself. She can fix her gown. She's making very specific kinds of movements, so we're very happy at this point."

Such movements are occurring, in part, because physicians have greatly decreased the amount of sedation Giffords is receiving.

Rhee, who has typically gone into great detail about the congresswoman's condition, was tight-lipped Wednesday. And he continued to urge caution, noting that the next two days remain crucial.

"If something was going to go bad, it would happen around this time period," he said.

Rhee said he was hopeful that Giffords would one day walk and talk normally, but he could not guarantee it. The congresswoman could have some "deficit" from the bullet that tore through the left hemisphere of her brain on Saturday, but it's unknown how severe it would be.

"There is without a doubt some permanent damage that's going to occur from that bullet," he said. "Will she be functional, viable, normal? I can't say for sure, but I'm very hopeful that she will be."

The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is the center of speech functions. Physicians have been unable to assess Giffords' ability to speak because they have kept her intubated, even though she can breathe on her own, to prevent the buildup of fluids in her lung that could cause pneumonia.

Giffords remains in critical condition. Five other victims from Saturday's shooting rampage remain hospitalized at University Medical Center: Two are in serious condition and three in fair. One, Ron Barber, who is Giffords' district director, was upgraded to serious status on Tuesday because he was put on a ventilator after surgery to close wounds from an earlier operation.

Barber's daughter, Jenny Douglas, said her father was alert and recovering but heartbroken over Saturday's event.

"Dad is so deeply saddened by the loss of his friend and fellow staff member Gabe Zimmerman and his longtime friend Chief Judge John Roll," she said.

Douglas, accompanied by her mother, sister, husband and brother-in-law, thanked medical personnel, law enforcement and the woman who applied pressure to her father's wounds as he awaited medical care after being shot outside a Safeway where Giffords was meeting constituents.

She said her father had been repeatedly asking about the congresswoman.

"My dad wants to see her. It will help him to see her," Douglas said. "I believe they're going to arrange that. He's just asking about her every day."

Meanwhile, Fritz Simon, the son of community outreach director Pam Simon, delivered a message on behalf of his mother, who was also injured in the attack.

"The wounds inflicted are healing, thanks to the amazing care of the doctors and staff here at University Medical Center," Simon said. "The deeper wounds of needless loss of life, severe injury of co-workers and community members and sadness over this act of violence will take much longer to heal."

The statement urged prayers for Giffords, whom Pam Simon called "the leader who's truly needed in this nation."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

Mehta reported from Tucson and Maugh from Los Angeles.

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