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Gabrielle Giffords leaves Tucson

A plane carrying Gabrielle Giffords takes off from an Air Force base en route to Houston, where she will begin a stay at a rehabilitation center.

January 22, 2011|By Bob Drogin and Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Mark Kelly stands with his wife, U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords, as she looks from her bed at the Santa Catalina Mountains while on an outdoor deck at University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Mark Kelly stands with his wife, U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords, as she looks… (Office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle…)

Reporting from Tucson — As residents lined the streets to bid a bittersweet farewell to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was moved to a renowned rehabilitation hospital in Houston on Friday, she responded to their cheers with a smile and even tears, her doctor said.

"She could hear it," said Dr. Randall Friese, a trauma surgeon who accompanied Giffords to Texas. "She smiled, and then she actually teared up a little bit. It was very emotional, very heart-wrenching."

So was the raw sentiment on the streets of Tucson, an outpouring of reverence and respect that appeared to bind the battered city together 13 days after a gunman killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords.

The Arizona Democrat, who was shot through the head, left her hometown with the kind of police motorcade and live TV coverage often reserved for a head of state.

"We just wanted to come today and say goodbye," said Dot Jones, 63, her eyes welling with tears as the procession passed.

"In some ways, I don't think Tucson will ever get over it," said her husband, John, 63.

Friends, political supporters and a high school special education class clustered outside the hospital complex, waving American flags and flashing thumbs-up signs. "We love you Gabby!" one woman cried.

Led by a dozen police motorcycles, an ambulance carrying Giffords left University Medical Center at 9:22 a.m. and drove to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where she was transferred onto an air ambulance for the flight to Houston.

In addition to Friese, Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, her mother, Gloria Giffords, an intensive care nurse and two congressional aides accompanied her.

After the flight landed, a medevac helicopter ferried Giffords to the trauma center at TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital. Doctors there said that the transfer went flawlessly and that Giffords would get her first rehabilitation session Friday afternoon.

"She looks spectacular," Dr. Dong Kim, chief neurosurgeon, said at a news conference. "She looks awake, calm and comfortable."

Dr. John Holcomb, who heads the medical team, said Giffords would remain in the intensive care unit at least until next week to ensure no infections develop. Doctors then will move her to the hospital's Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, which specializes in the treatment of brain injuries.

Giffords has "great rehabilitation potential," said Dr. Gerard Francisco. "She'll keep us busy, and we'll keep her busy as well."

Kim said Giffords may require four to six months of speech and physical therapy, although some of it may be as an outpatient.

U.S. Capitol Police have set up extra security at the 119-bed hospital.

Giffords, 40, was shot in the forehead when a gunman opened fire on a crowd that had gathered to meet her outside a Tucson supermarket on Jan. 8. A federal grand jury has charged Jared Lee Loughner, 22, with crimes including attempted assassination. He will be arraigned in Phoenix on Monday.

On Friday morning, Tucson police blocked traffic at each intersection so Giffords' motorcade could pass, and throngs of well-wishers waited on nearly every corner. Some cheered, some wept and some prayed.

"It's the end of a chapter for us," said Rick Morey-Wolfe, 37, a hospital contractor. "It's sad to see her go — this is her town. But we're happy to see her go somewhere where she can get better."

Cindy Harrelson, a grandmother of three, leaned on her walker as the motorcade assembled. She said she'd had a tumor in the same region of the brain where Giffords was shot.

"I know what she has to go through, mentally and physically," Harrelson said. "I'm glad she's going someplace that's better for her and her husband."

On Campbell Avenue, Emily Joseph, 22, clutched a sign reading, "Tucson's heart goes with you. Come home soon, come home strong."

"I want her to know we're still pulling for her," Joseph explained.

A small group stayed outside the Air Force base even after security guards had waved the motorcade through the gate.

Carlos Gonzales, 61, dressed in a U.S. flag shirt, cried when the procession passed. He had skipped work as a marketing director for the day, and he held a sign reading "God Speed Gabby" high in the air until Giffords' plane had disappeared from sight.

"Tucson has come together like I've never seen before," he said. "This tragedy has surpassed everything. It has surpassed politics, religion, race."

Tucson residents like to boast that, despite pushing 1 million in population, their sometimes-eccentric community has only one freeway and retains a small-town feel.

On the streets Friday morning, it seemed that everyone knew Giffords — either directly or as a symbol of the tragedy.

"This woman is different than any other person I've seen in politics," said Al Garcia, 47, who wore a Marine Corps jacket. "The first time we met her, it was like we'd known her forever."

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