NPR logo Gabrielle Giffords Medical Update: Docs 'Encouraged'

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Gabrielle Giffords Medical Update: Docs 'Encouraged'

Dr. G. Michael Lemole, Jr., left, speaks about the condition of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., as Dr. Peter Rhee looks on, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011. Chris Carlson/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

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Chris Carlson/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dr. G. Michael Lemole, Jr., left, speaks about the condition of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., as Dr. Peter Rhee looks on, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011.

Chris Carlson/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The University Medical Center-Arizona neurosurgeon who operated on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said Sunday he was "cautiously optimistic" about her status following surgery to manage a bullet wound to her brain resulting from a mass shooting in Tucson in which six people were killed.

Providing the greatest amount of detail released yet about the congresswoman's condition, Dr. Gerald Michael Lemole Jr. described a bullet as entering the front of Giffords' brain and exiting out the rear.

Critically important, however, was that the bullet didn't apparently hit areas of the brain that would have reduced Giffords' chances of survival, let alone recovery.

Lemole said:

When we talk about gunshot wounds to the head, the things that are most concerning to us, are if the bullet crosses from one hemisphere to the other, one side to the other. If the bullet crosses through the geometric center of the brain.

And I'm happy to say that those were not the case in this instance. And because of that, Congresswoman Giffords was able to communicate with us this morning through the following of simple commands. And we're very encouraged by that.

We are still in critical condition. Brain swelling at any time can take a turn for the worse. But I am still cautiously optimistic.

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Lemole said doctors didn't have to battle excessive bleeding in the brain, which can be catastrophic. Also, the surgeons didn't have to remove a lot of damaged brain which also should improve her chances for recovery.

Lemole said the surgical team removed Giffords' skull to give her injured brain room to swell and that it could be months before it's replaced.

Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of the Trauma, Critical Care and Emergency Surgery division at the medical center, said "We're all very happy at this stage," because of Giffiords' ability to respond to simple commands like squeezing a hand or holding up two fingers.

Because she has a ventilator tube in her throat, she is unable to speak, Rhee said.

Rhee, who has worked as a combat surgeon in Afghanistan and Iraq, also called the injury a "devastating." wound. "it wasn't a little grazing wound to the brain." He said the neurosurgeons saved her life.