Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose condition was upgraded from serious to good this week, has begun an intense regimen of full-time rehabilitation after a successful move between Houston medical facilities.
Although she faces a long recovery, doctors said, she has progressed at "lightning speed" given the severity of her injuries. In Houston, she has been interacting with hospital staff and following commands.
Giffords was shot in the head Jan. 8 during an event with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been charged in the attack, which killed six people and injured 12 others.
The congresswoman was flown last week from Tucson to Houston, where she was treated in the intensive care unit of Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. Her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, chose the center's Institute for Rehabilitation and Research because it is among the most highly rated brain injury recovery centers in the nation and is close to his family.
Giffords requires help to sit up or stand. A team of therapists will work with her in the coming weeks to improve her speech and language functions, and to rebuild her physical strength after weeks of immobility.
Kelly gave a thumbs up to observers from the passenger seat of the ambulance while Giffords was moved from the hospital to the rehab facility Wednesday.
After the transfer, doctors projected optimism. Dr. Dong Kim, director of Memorial Hermann's neuroscience institute, said he and other staff members "have noted daily improvements in her neurological condition."
Giffords began physical, occupational and speech therapy in her room Wednesday afternoon. For now the focus is to improve her conditioning, strength and range of motion, said chief medical officer Gerard Francisco. As the therapy progresses, she should be able to sit and stand on her own, he said.
Although Giffords has a breathing tube, Dr. Imoigele Aisiku said she can breathe without assistance. Doctors said a valve will be installed that will allow Giffords to speak until the tube can be safely removed. The doctors skirted questions about the extent of her ability to communicate, with Kim noting only that her "speech function" has been improving.
A tube to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid and prevent swelling in the brain was removed Monday.
During President Obama's State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday, Giffords' seat was left empty. Republicans and Democrats abandoned their usual seating configuration and sat side by side in response to calls for more civil political discourse in the wake of the shootings, and most lawmakers wore black-and-white ribbons in honor of Giffords and the other Tucson victims.
Kelly watched the speech on TV from his wife's bedside while holding her hand.