Giffords' Condition Continues To Improve

On Thursday, doctors treating Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said they were able to sit her up and dangle her legs off the bed. They even spoke of removing her breathing tube Friday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Tucson today, two events that show the two sides of a story that has developed there: at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, a funeral. Family and friends escorted the small brown casket of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green into the sanctuary. Green's funeral is the first of six that will take place in the coming days.

SIEGEL: A very different scene is playing out just down the highway at the University Medical Center. Doctors treating Representative Gabrielle Giffords say her progress is exceptional. Despite being shot through the head on Saturday, doctors say she is able to move her arms and legs on both sides of her body.

And as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, this morning, the thing they were still most excited about was that last night she opened her eyes on her own.

JEFF BRADY: Neurosurgeon Michael Lemole says he was in the room when fellow members of Congress visited Giffords last night.

Dr. MICHAEL LEMOLE (Chief of Neurosurgery, University Medical Center): I think it was a combination, perhaps, of the unexpected but familiar that really prompted her to open her eyes and look around.

BRADY: New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was among those in Giffords' hospital room. She relayed her experience while flying back to Washington on Air Force One.

Senator KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (Democrat, New York): She finally opens her eyes, and you can tell she was, like, desperately trying to focus, and it took enormous strength from her. And Mark just can't believe it. I mean, he is so happy, and we're crying because we're witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us.

BRADY: Dr. Lemole says now Giffords is opening her eyes consistently, sometimes for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and often in reaction to something happening in the room, like the television being on.

Dr. LEMOLE: Without getting too technical, we have a coma grading scale that we apply to all head injury patients, and this does bump her up several points on that scale, just the ability to open your eyes spontaneously and become aware of your surroundings. So, yes, it is a significant move forward.

BRADY: Lemole says brain swelling is less of a concern now. At this point, doctors are looking for signs of potential problems like blood clots and pneumonia that can happen to anyone in an intensive care unit.

Dr. Peter Rhee says they've started moving Giffords around a bit.

Dr. PETER RHEE (Medical Director, Trauma and Critical Care, University Medical Center): Today, we're doing very aggressive physical therapy with her, and we actually got her out of bed and dangling on the side of the bed as well. So we're very happy about this process, and so far, it seems like everything is going forward without any setbacks at this position.

BRADY: Rhee says Giffords needs a lot of assistance to do this, but they hope to have her sitting up in a chair soon. The next step is removing the breathing tube.

Dr. RHEE: She still has a tube in her throat. She's still on the machine. But even though she's on the machine, the machine is not pushing air in. She's just breathing on her own with the warm humidified air that's going in there with very little support.

BRADY: At times during today's briefing, Drs. Rhee and Lemole were almost giddy. And in undoctor-like fashion, Lemole said Giffords' progress may be partially attributable to outside forces.

Dr. LEMOLE: Miracles happen every day. And in medicine, we like to very much attribute them to either what we do or others do around us. But a lot of medicine is outside of our control, and we're wise to acknowledge miracles.

BRADY: Lemole says it's still not clear what Giffords' recovery will look like eventually. But with the progress she's made so far, he says there's a wide range of possibilities: from needing significant help to get around her home to being out in the world and functional.

While Giffords is the only shooting victim left at University Medical Center in critical condition, four other patients are still receiving care there. They are in fair condition. The hospital won't release specific information about them, but one of the patients was expected to be discharged today.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Tucson.

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