As Giffords Recovers, Her Team Perseveres

Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is expected to attend the launch of the space shuttle in Florida this week. Her husband will be at the controls. And while Giffords' recovery from being shot in the head in January continues, her office keeps the business of her district going.

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Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is leaving the hospital, at least for a few days. She will travel to Florida to watch Space Shuttle Endeavour take off on Friday with her husband, Mark Kelly, aboard as commander. Giffords, of course, was shot in the head on January 8th at a congressional event in Tucson.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports that the trip to Cape Canaveral is a milestone for her recovery and for her staff.

TED ROBBINS: The most prominent object in Gabby Giffords' Tucson office is a big leather saddle, right in the reception area; this is southeastern Arizona, the West. But there's one very large photograph on the wall which has nothing to do with the West. It shows the trajectory of the space shuttle as it takes off and heads into orbit. It's a memory from an earlier Giffords' visit to watch her husband, Mark.

Her trip this week to watch Endeavour's launch is personal, but communications director C.J. Karamargin says, in a way, it's also Giffords' first professional outing since she was shot.

Mr. C.J. KARAMARGIN (Communications Director, Representative Gabrielle Giffords): As the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, she has become among NASA's most ardent champions in Congress.

ROBBINS: Of course, not being present, she cannot vote or introduce legislation. Although a couple of weeks ago, Texas Congressman Ted Poe, a Republican colleague of the Democrat Giffords, visited ranchers in rural Arizona, then introduced a bill on Giffords' behalf to improve emergency communications along the border. So business goes on in the Washington and the Tucson offices.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. JONI JONES (Office Manager, Representative Gabrielle Giffords): Hi, Bernadette. It's Joni. I just want to let you know that your Native American studies certificates are ready.

ROBBINS: Office manager Joni Jones is constantly on the phone, this time arranging to deliver a stack of certificates congratulating Native American students graduating this spring. Instead of Giffords' signature, Giffords' chief of staff, Pia Carusone, has signed them.

Mr. ROSS ZIMMERMAN: Hey.

Ms. JONES: Hi, Ross.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Hi, Joni.

Ms. JONES: How are you?

ROBBINS: Ross Zimmerman walks into the office carrying lunch for Joni Jones. Zimmerman's son, Gabe, who was Giffords' outreach director, was killed on January 8th.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: I stop here pretty much every day. I make a point of it. They like it. I like it. Right?

ROBBINS: Giffords' office has the close compassionate feel of a family or a group of friends who've gone through crisis together, which they have.

Staff members and some shooting victims will travel together to the shuttle launch. They'll be in a private viewing area, so will Gabby Giffords. She has not been seen in public since the shooting for security and to protect her dignity.

Her head was shaved for surgery. Her hair is about two inches long now. She has a small scar and some facial swelling. She is walking with help and increasing her vocabulary. The bullet, which went through the left side of her brain, caused weakness on her right side and severely damaged her ability to verbally communicate.

But Michael McNulty says her personality is intact.

Mr. MICHAEL McNULTY (Campaign Chairman, Representative Gabrielle Giffords): The way her face lights up when she sees you takes you straight back to when it was the Gabby Giffords we all know.

ROBBINS: McNulty is Giffords' campaign chairman. He visited her a few days ago at TIRR Memorial Hospital in Houston where she's in rehab.

Mr. McNULTY: Her powers of perception seem almost unimpaired. As you're talking along, if you stop and say, you know, are you following me? She gets very frustrated and say yeah, yeah, I understand. Keep going.

ROBBINS: That doesn't mean Giffords is ready to contemplate running for office again. The persistent rumors of a Senate campaign or even another congressional campaign are just that, rumors. Her staff, her family, her friends are practicing patience and living with uncertainty.

Mr. McNULTY: Nothing could be more accurate. We have no idea how this is going to come out.

ROBBINS: Gabby Giffords has said she wants to get back to work, which McNulty interprets to mean she's tired of being in a hospital room. So it's great news that this week for a while she'll get out.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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