NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Almost a year later, the shock continues to reverberate. We all remember too well the scene in Tucson, where a gunman opened fire at a congressional town meeting. He started by putting a bullet through the brain of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He left six people dead ,and a dozen more injured.
In a new book, her husband, Mark Kelly, wrote that looking back, Gabby's life has been defined by a series of unexpected detours: the Fulbright that took her to study at a Mennonite colony in Mexico; the call from her father that led her to leave her job at a New York accounting firm to return to Arizona and run the family tire business; the surprise resignation of a congressman that opened her way to Washington; and then a tragedy that left her to recover from traumatic brain injury.
Mark Kelly joins us in just a moment. If you have questions about their lives then and now, give us a call. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who take care of people with brain injuries; 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Jamin Warren joins us for a review of the video games available this holiday season, but first Mark Kelly joins us from the studios of Houston Public Radio. He's a retired naval aviator and a former astronaut, with Gabrielle Giffords, the author of "Gabby," and nice to have you on the program with us today.
MARK KELLY: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And how's your wife doing today?
KELLY: She's doing well. She just got back from rehab, and she continues to work really, really hard, really motivated coming up into the next year.
CONAN: Is this a daily exercise, rehab?
KELLY: Yes, yeah, for her she leaves every morning at eight and back in the afternoon, and then she has some speech therapy that continues in the afternoon at home.
CONAN: And can you - is progress being measured every day?
KELLY: You know, in the beginning, you could see progress every day, I mean starting when she came out of a coma. Now I'd say it's more like every week. I was just saying to her this morning that over the last week or so, I could, you know, really see a difference in the way she's able to put sentences together and string a couple of them together.
And, you know, her ability to communicate still continues to improve, thanks to a lot of hard work.
CONAN: One of the big problems early on, was her inability to form a question, and I gather that's not unusual.
KELLY: It isn't, but, you know, every one of these traumatic brain injuries are different. You know, unlike a stroke where people, you know, have similar characteristics, I think, you know, traumatic brain injury, especially from a penetrating object like a bullet, tends to be, you know, a unique case, every one of them.
And she did, for a very long time, had a - couldn't ask anything. And eventually she overcame that, and now she's asking questions all the time.
CONAN: And the - one of the things you muse about in the book was that the dynamic of your relationship changed a lot. She used to do most of the talking, and then all of a sudden you had to do almost all of it. Is that evening back out now?
KELLY: It's getting better all the time. You know, I'd still say I'm, you know, responsible for probably 75, 80 percent of the conversation, where it used to be probably the other way around before she was injured. But it is improving.
You just - you know, with Gabby, you know, my - the thing I have to, you know, focus on is being patient. It just takes her a little more time.
CONAN: There's a story you tell in the book about the opportunity you had to meet the great physicist, Stephen Hawking. He of course has a form of Lou Gehrig's disease that makes it almost impossible for him to speak, certainly not quickly.
KELLY: Yes, yeah, we met him in I think it was 2006, at the Royal Society in London, and it was really interesting. I tried to speak to him, and he communicates through a computer that can track a single muscle on his face, really the only thing he can move on his entire body.
And, you know, I tried to speak to him, but I just didn't have the patience for that. And Gabby knelt down in front of his wheelchair and asked him a simple question, just said - she said to him: How are you, Dr. Hawking? And then she waited. And it was five or 10 minutes before he was able to respond.
And, you know, in hindsight, it almost like she was giving me a lesson of how I was going to have to be patient with her just five years down the road.
CONAN: This has been quite a year. One of the lessons you learned in the program at NASA, you cite the Chris Craft, the original flight director at NASA who says when you don't know what to do, don't do anything. And I think that's been something that's guided you: You've not had to make a lot of decisions until you were ready to.
KELLY: Yes, I the last year, you know, I've had to make a lot of decisions with regards to my wife's care and my career and kids, and, you know, I've always kept that in the back of mine. You know, Chris Craft was NASA's first flight director, very famous and smart individual, and when operating the space shuttle, you've really got to make sure you don't make a mistake.
And it's similar when making health care choices for a spouse or family member. You don't want to make mistakes. So I've kept that in mind as I've gone through, month after month, since January.
CONAN: As a pilot, as commander of the Space Shuttle, you learned to make decisions very, very quickly. The time scale on these decisions you've made in the last year a little slower.
KELLY: Well, yeah, it depends. It depends on the decision, and that's the key is, you know, knowing what requires a quick decision and what you can put off and try to gather more information and decide later. You want to make sure that you take the right amount of time, especially making, you know, critical health care choices.
CONAN: There's another choice that I think a lot of people, not just in Tucson but around the country, will be interested in and that is the choice that Gabby and you will have to make - it's her decision - about whether to run for re-election. But she doesn't have to decide until May.
KELLY: Yes, she doesn't. I mean, the signatures are collected, have to be collected in May, and she's certainly not going to wait until the last, you know, possible second to make that decision. So in the coming months, she'll decide whether or not she's going to run for re-election. We talk about it often and, you know, she has a decision to make.
CONAN: Do you ever talk about the future that will never be? You were talking about having a child. That looks unlikely, at least unlikely - it looks unlikely. It is possible that had this incident not happened, she might be running for U.S. Senate right now.
KELLY: It is. You know, we talk about that in the book. If the - if January 8th had gone differently, and she wasn't injured, and it was very likely she would have been pregnant a week or 10 days later, and that's certainly been put off. It's not - certainly not out of the question, but it is less likely. But it's something we'll consider as we go forward, and certainly, you know, the opportunity for her to run for the U.S. Senate someday is still out there.
She doesn't have to do it right now or even in two years, but, you know, the future for her I think is pretty bright. She continues to improve, and she's motivated, and she's in a good mood. And, you know, she will - she'll be back.
CONAN: And there are blessings to be counted, among them had the bullet hit the other side of the brain, there would have been, probably, a major personality change.
KELLY: Yeah, that's really interesting. Some folks would say that if you're going to have that kind of injury that it's better to have it on the other side, the right side of your brain, because it would largely leave your ability to speak intact.
But when Gabby and I first got to Houston here after she was injured, her neurosurgeon, Dr. Kim, said: You know, Mark - and this is one of the first things he said to me. He said I - you know, some people think it's best if you're going to get shot in the head to get shot on the right side, but he disagrees with that, he said, because even though those folks can communicate better, he says a lot of times, they wind up being different people.
And that's really, really difficult for the family members. And Gabby is the exact same person, and cognitively she's great. I mean, she comprehends everything. You know, she can make decisions. All that stuff is intact. She's just having to relearn how, you know, how to communicate as well as she could before. It's a challenge, but it's something she'll overcome.
CONAN: And she has her memories.
KELLY: Oh absolutely. I mean, I cannot find something that she does not remember. She doesn't remember the day she was shot, but if you back up just one day, her memory is as good as mine is for, you know, anything that we have done together over the last, you know, seven years that I've known her.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Kelly, with Gabrielle Giffords, his wife, they're the author of "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Tony's(ph) on the line calling from Rochester in New York.
TONY: Hello, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Tony, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
TONY: I was telling your screener that I'm a registered nurse, and I've taken care of people with traumatic brain injury. And one patient always comes to mind when I think of this, this was an 18-year-old girl who was in an auto accident. And her injury was mainly a swelling of the brain.
And so the doctors had to take her scalp off on both sides, what we call a bilateral flap, and they tucked those pieces of scalp neatly into her abdomen for safekeeping, and this particular patient made a full recovery. But what was interesting during her stay with us in acute care, was that she developed what we called 50 First Date Syndrome.
And every day, everything was new to her, every time she woke up. But she seemed to remember all of the men that worked with her: myself, one of the doctors, the physical therapist, who was a male. And she remembered us but not necessarily the females.
And her behavior had changed also. Her father - she was very - her language was very foul, and her father had told us that she would never, ever use those words, normally, before her accident. But then we took care of her, she moved on to rehab, came back to visit us six months later, and she was fully recovered. Of course, didn't remember any of us but wanted to come back to thank us.
CONAN: As we've said, as Mark Kelly said, every situation of traumatic brain injury is different and unique. Tony, that's an unusual one, the 50 First Dates Syndrome, I guess we hear about that, it might make a better movie than a case, but that's interesting. Thank you very much for the phone call.
TONY: Thank you.
CONAN: And I know, Mark Kelly, you've gotten, oh, probably thousands of emails and letters from people in similar circumstances.
KELLY: Yes, we do, I mean letters, phone calls, emails of a lot of people that have suffered traumatic brain injury, some from gunshot wounds to the head. There's a man here in Houston named Mike Siegel(ph) who I mentioned, that Gabby and I mention in the book, who he has come to visit her. He had a very similar injury.
Twenty years ago, he was at a convenience store outside of Houston, and he interrupted a robbery, and he was taken into the freezer, and the robbers attempted to execute him with a shot to the back of the head but basically the same path that Gabby had.
And 20 years later, he's - you know, I wouldn't say he's 100 percent, but he's pretty close to fully recovered, has a little bit of a limp a little bit of a - speech sounds a little different because he has some paralysis of his vocal chords. But he, you know, works fulltime, and he came and visited with us in our house, and it was very motivational for Gabby to see somebody who suffered a very similar wound and has come so very far.
CONAN: I wanted to play something for you. This was part of a package that Gabby sent to you while she was away in India. You write in the book - she writes, my dirty little secret is that I love Latin pop. I promise not to make you listen to it too much, but if you don't dig Track 9 with Nelly Fertado, we're going to have to have a serious discussion. This is the Latin artist known as (unintelligible).
We're talking with Mark Kelly, the retire astronaut, Navy captain, co-author with his wife of "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We've learned a great deal in the past 11 months about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' injuries and her recovery. Doctors call it miraculous. In a new book written with her husband, Mark Kelly, we meet Gabby, the woman who grew up in the desert and loves the ocean, who even today remains relentlessly positive and so values public service, the woman who met and fell in love with her astronaut husband. Even now, she still knows what he's thinking.
You can read much more about the time they shared before Mark Kelly's final shuttle launch earlier this year and one of the moments they'll never forget along a Florida breach. That's in an excerpt from the book "Gabby" at npr.org.
Mark Kelly is our guest. If you have questions about their lives then and now, give us a call. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who take of people with brain injuries, 800-989-8255. Email u email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Here's an email from Tracy(ph) in Simi Valley, California: At Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, we talked a lot about how difficult it must have been to go on STS-134 with Gabby in the condition she was in. The question I have is: Did you ever consider not going?
KELLY: Oh absolutely. I mean, it was - it took me some time to make that decision. I wanted Gabby to be part of it. At the time, she couldn't communicate well enough. So I really had to go with what I think she would have wanted me to do.
And, you know, I knew pretty definitively that she would want me to, you know, to continue with my career and at a minimum complete that final mission and the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
So it was kind of a hard decision, but, you know, ultimately we made the right choice and had a successful flight, and Gabby's happy that I went ahead and did that.
CONAN: You since retired from both NASA and from the Navy. Other than taking care of your wife, what are you doing now?
KELLY: Well, I'm doing a little public speaking, but mostly I'm focusing on Gabby and trying to make sure she has everything she needs to recover, so she can, you know, get back to work and continue her recovery and improve. And so I - you know, like this morning, I got her breakfast, made her lunch that she took with her.
Actually because I'm doing this interview, I wasn't there when she got back today, but I'll be - you know, I'll be home around dinnertime, and my, you know, my goal right now is to give her everything she needs to recover.
CONAN: Email from Blake(ph) in Portland: Please ask your guest, you focus on the positive results of this. Do you ever wake up in the morning and say wow, I'm an astronaut, and my wife is Gabby Giffords?
KELLY: No I don't because I'm actually a retired astronaut now. She's still Gabby Giffords. It's - you know, she's just an incredible woman, and, you know, the story over the last year, I think, you know, we've had our ups and downs, and certainly January 8th of last year was a pretty big low for us. But, you know, in general it's been a lot of positive experiences out of this, and I think people see that in the book.
It's really an uplifting story and a story of hope and somebody who has fought so hard and will not give up.
CONAN: Let's go next to Harian(ph), Harian with us from Mountain View in California.
HARIAN: Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.
HARIAN: In 1985, I was in a motor scooter accident in Greece, and my helmet broke and went into my brain between the parietal and the occipital lobes on the right side of my brain. And I didn't know who I was. I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. I couldn't read. I couldn't write.
Anyway, took me just a little bit over a year to recover, and I just want to encourage Gabby that it really does get better (unintelligible) as possible.
CONAN: Thank you. Harian, you can hear some emotion in your voice. It's maybe the signal event in your life.
HARIAN: Yeah, it made quite an impact. I finally even got around to writing about it about 10 years later called "A Mind of My Own."
CONAN: It's a good title.
HARIAN: Thank you.
KELLY: Did you have any difficulty recovering your speech?
HARIAN: Yes, unbelievably, and I would say still that's about the only residual part of it is every now and then, I find myself searching for vocabulary, and people...
KELLY: Well, you talk very fast. So you sound great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's called aphasia.
CONAN: And Mark Kelly, there was another phenomenon that your wife had, which was fixating on words.
KELLY: Yeah called perseverating, which is you pick, you know, one word, and you get stuck on it. And it was kind of funny what she happened to get stuck on, which was the word chicken, that she would say over and over again. She doesn't do it anymore, but it was - you know, completely at times you wouldn't expect, she would start saying that.
CONAN: Harian, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
HARIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Email from Larry(ph) in Rochester, New York. Do her communication limitations extend to writing and reading?
KELLY: So yeah, that's a very good question. Her reading comprehension she says is less than what it used to be, but as far as we can tell, it's pretty close to what it has previously been. So reading comprehension is great. Writing communication for her is similar to her speech. So she still struggles with it, and it's improving, but it seems to parallel her speech communication pretty closely, and that's not the case with all people with brain injuries.
Some can clearly communicate in writing and just can't speak, but hers, they're pretty similar.
CONAN: Lets' go next to Patrick(ph), Patrick with us from Neptune Beach in Florida.
PATRICK: Thank you very much for taking my call.
PATRICK: I can't - I am extraordinarily impressed with the terrible tragedy that has befallen the Giffords. It is just an awful thing to suffer as a family, certainly for Mrs. Giffords herself. My question is this: While the tragedy to the family has been unspeakable, the - her constituency, those people that she was elected to represent, have lost effective representation in front of Congress.
My understanding was that Arizona law required that if representative was unable to serve for more than 90 days, they must step down. Now, I'm very encouraged that Mark Giffords is saying that she may be recovered and may some day be able to run for Senate, and I wish her all the luck for that, but I'm wondering why they made the decision to continue on, and they're effectively denying representation to their constituency.
CONAN: Our guest of course is Mark Kelly. His wife is Gabby Giffords, but Mark, go ahead.
KELLY: Yeah, that's a good question. So Gabby was elected a little bit over a year ago, and, you know, she received - she was elected by her constituents, and until - I mean, even now, she has not made the decision whether she can return to office or run for re-election.
Now remember as everybody knows, she was injured while doing her job, you know, at a very public event, and she feels, and I feel, and I think the majority of the people that elected her feel that she deserves a certain amount of time to recover, to get back to work.
And it was a pretty traumatic injury, and it's going to take her a little bit of time to recover. It's - you know, she is not going to - she'll make a decision within the next few months on whether or not she'll run for re-election. And while she's been recovering, her office, with the exception of her being able to vote, which with one case, you know, she went and voted on August 1, she has not been voting in Congress.
But her office has been able to continue with the priorities that she laid out before she was injured, including legislation, constituent services. Gabby's office provides probably, you know, in the top one percent of members of Congress for the amount of cases they open and close for her constituents.
So she has a very effective and active office, and the one thing, you know, is that she is not there every day voting as a member of Congress, but, you know, I feel and the majority of people I think feel that she deserves some time to recover.
CONAN: And Patrick, the Arizona law you referenced refers to Arizona-elected officials. Congress makes the laws about how long you can stay in Congress, and they don't cover that. So it's not - it's moot in the case of a federal representative. I guess...
PATRICK: Well, Mr. Kelly, I again extend my sympathies for the terrible tragedy that has befallen you and your spouse, and I understand the decisions that you've expressed them, and I hope that her convalescence continues, and she is fully recovered.
KELLY: Thank you, thank you, appreciate that.
CONAN: And thanks for the call, Patrick. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Amy(ph), Amy calling us from San Antonio.
AMY: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I am a nurse here in San Antonio, a home health nurse, and I'm taking care of people in their homes who have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Being a military town in San Antonio, some are Iraq War veterans. And also my son suffered a traumatic brain injury during birth, and it affected his language centers and also his movement centers.
And they told me if it had happened even a year later, he never would have walked or talked. But I just wanted to find out if there have been any - if Senator Giffords has had music therapy because it's a different part of the brain that controls speech versus controls music.
So a lot of times people who cannot speak, they can sing what they're thinking.
KELLY: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, we talk a lot about music therapy in our book. It was very effective in helping her, especially in the beginning stages of her therapy, kind of getting her language ability going again. Your ability to sing and music is in the right side of her brain, and Gabby was injured on the left. So very early on, even though she couldn't formulate an entire sentence, she could sing an entire song. And that's true even today. And we - she continues with - she does get some music therapy each week, even today, and it's very effective.
CONAN: Does she still like Latin pop?
KELLY: She does, but I don't. No, I don't. I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELLY: I actually have no opinion about it.
CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the phone call.
AMY: Thank you.
CONAN: One of the things we learned about Gabby Giffords is that as a girl, she starred - she was, in fact, the natural choice to star in the - in her school's production of "Annie." And indeed, her dog starred as - co-starred as Sandy. And that song, the sun'll come out tomorrow, that plays a role, too.
KELLY: It does. It's a song that was very important to Gabby and her mother. And they would sing it when she was still in the hospital. And we actually have - in the book, we have a great picture of Gabby as Annie with her dog when she was probably - oh, she must have been about 10 or 12 years old. And it's a very special meaning to her.
CONAN: Here's an email from Tony: Congratulations to Gabby on her remarkable recovery. I remember when this tragedy happened, the talk of the nation was the nasty, mean, rhetorical exchanges taking place among our nation's political leaders in Congress. I wonder, what are Mark Kelly's thoughts on this issue? Has anything changed in politics since then?
KELLY: You know, I think at times, you know, when people think about how nasty the last election was, I think they can - they try to, you know, work more towards a moderate discourse. And, you know, we're always hopeful that that'll be the case. I think, you know, politics has been pretty nasty the last couple of election cycles. And we really, as a nation, need to work on that and just, you know, get to the point where we can disagree with people, but we can listen to them and we don't just have to shout at each other. And that's what we saw a lot in Arizona in 2010. And hopefully, this time around, it'll be a little bit more moderate.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Kelly, along with his wife Gabrielle Giffords, the author of "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." The other writer involved is Jeffrey Zaslow. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to Kate, Kate with us from Central Valley in California.
CONAN: Yes, Kate. Go ahead, please.
KATE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to tell you I have a master's degree in clinical social work. And as I was listening, I just - I marveled - I've watched the recovery, you know, from afar. But when I heard today the comment about perhaps not raising a child, I just thought I have raised a child, some of which has been on my own since my daughter was eight. My husband left me, unfortunately, when my daughter was eight, and I had to fight my husband in a custody battle, which was a mean, nasty custody battle, and I won. And I have raised her, and she's just doing beautifully.
CONAN: Do you have TBI, Kate?
CONAN: Do you have traumatic brain injury?
KATE: Yes, I'm sorry. I did. I had an injury 16 years ago, and it was to my right frontal lobe. And I was in a coma. And I was not expected to come out of the coma. And I had to learn to walk and talk and read again. And amidst, I also had - my spine was fractured in three places and I lost my arm - my elbow of my arm, and I had numerous other injuries and fractures and issues. So it was a - you know, complications were, you know, not just a brain injury.
CONAN: Yeah. And - but still possible to raise a child for you and - under difficult circumstances, yeah.
KATE: Yes. And - I mean, I, even at one point, was asked what they thought - they asked me what I thought was my most difficult injury or what was going to be my most difficult injury, and I was very worried about that elbow injury. But later, I realized the brain injury was going to be a lot more (unintelligible).
CONAN: A little more serious. Kate, thanks very much for the call. And we're glad you made it through.
KATE: Thank you, and good luck, Mark.
KELLY: Thank you.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you: There's a discussion you and your wife have before her injury, about the death penalty, where she, once a supporter of it, changes her mind. After her injury, she's asked at one point what she thinks ought to happen with the man who killed all those other people and wounded her and a dozen other people, and she had a one-word answer.
KELLY: Yeah, a one syllable answer, which was quite interesting, being that she had such a hard time communicating and could really sum it up in just one syllable, and that was rot. And, you know, she's a very positive person, but when she thinks back to, you know, the person who did this, you know, it's difficult. And she's not a supporter of the death penalty and hasn't been for sometime, but she certainly expects, you know, harsh punishment.
CONAN: Some of the most wrenching passages in the book involve her discovery of, indeed, what happened, not just to herself, but to the others who were killed and injured that day.
KELLY: Yes. Yeah, that was a difficult decision that I had to make early on, and I got some help with this. I talked to some experts about how we should handle this. And the thought was we shouldn't, you know, just dump on her all the information all at once, you know, who was shot, who was killed, you know, friends, you know, people that she knew - you know, Christina Taylor Green, a nine-year-old girl that was just there to see her - that we shouldn't give her all that information at one time, but that it was important for her to know what happened to her, you know, why she was there, that she was shot in the head. So we told her those things early, and then it took some time. And it wasn't until she started to ask some questions that we actually explained to her, you know, the details of what happened to the other folks.
CONAN: It's a terrifying and inspirational story that, thankfully, is not over. This is going to continue. Mark Kelly, thank you very much for being with us today. Thank you for your time.
KELLY: You're very welcome. It was great to be here.
CONAN: The book is "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." The author is Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly. Coming up: "Angry Birds," "Call of Duty," "Uncharted 3." What video games will be under your tree this year? We'll talk of the season dubbed the billion-dollar video game next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.