Her hair is no longer long and blonde now; it’s short and dark. But the first photos of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords taken since she was shot in the head in January show a smiling, engaged woman with barely a trace of the physical wounds resulting from the attack that killed or injured 19 other people in Tucson, Ariz.
The photos, posted to Rep. Giffords’ Facebook page Sunday morning, are an important step in a story of private perserverance and recovery as well as public soul-searching about gun violence and political rhetoric in America today.
Those close to Giffords say that while she’s made steady improvement in her communication and other skills, there is still far to go in her rehabilitation. But for now, the photos offer a kind of proof of that rehabilitation, a relief at seeing evident progress.
“It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered,” said P.K. Weis, the veteran photographer who’s known Giffords for years and was invited to take the photos.
“I was excited to see her and to see her smile,” Weis said on Giffords’ Facebook page. “She was glad to see me, was in a good mood, smiling and laughing and seemed to enjoy the experience. I certainly did, too.”
Others who know her were similarly impressed.
“Wow! I saw her at the very end of March, and even then, Gabby was all there, her smile, her personality. And she looks even better now,” wrote Arizona State Senator Linda Lopez, a friend of Giffords. “I think people are going to be very happy to see how great she looks. For someone who’s undergone what she’s endured, it’s really something. I feel relieved. She looks beautiful.”
The photos were taken outside the TIRR Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, where Giffords has been undergoing rehabilitation. She is expected to be leave the hospital for outpatient rehabilitation within a month.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of Giffords’ closest friends in Congress, said that she had a “wonderful conversation” on the telephone with Giffords on Wednesday.
Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, says Giffords spoke in full sentences and initiated some of the conversation instead of just responding, as she had done in the recent past, reports the Associated Press.
“Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing,” Carusone said. “Add it all together, and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But, when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had the trouble."
While Giffords is making "tremendously good recovery,” Carusone said, “All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going and that when she does plateau, it will be at a place far away from here."
It’s much too soon to know if Giffords will be able to run for reelection to Congress next year. May 2012 is the deadline for filing reelection papers.
"That's a firm timetable,” Carusone said. “Short of that, we'd love to know today what her life will be, what her quality of life will be, which will determine whether she'll be able to run for office and all sorts of other things involving her life. But we just don't know yet.”
For now, Jared Loughner, the man accused in the January shooting of Giffords and the others, has been declared incompetent to stand trial in the case.
In making his decision last month, US District Judge Larry Burns relied on the findings of two forensic mental-health professionals who evaluated Loughner at a federal prison complex in Missouri. Judge Burns ordered that Loughner be tested again in four months. If, after treatment, he is then determined to be competent, the court proceedings can move forward.