TUESDAY, Jan. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Arizona Congresswoman
Gabrielle Giffords was breathing on her own Tuesday, her doctors
said, three days after she was struck in the brain by an assassin's
Dr. Michael Lemole, Giffords' neurosurgeon, said doctors left a
breathing tube in the 40-year-old woman to protect her airway, but
she is drawing breaths on her own, is alert and responding to
Associated Press reported.
"I'm very encouraged by the fact she's done so well," Lemole said. Given the violent nature of her injury -- a 9mm bullet through the left side of her brain -- "she has no right to look this good, and she does," the Washington Post reported.
The doctors at University Medical Center in Tucson who operated
on Giffords immediately after the shooting Saturday were encouraged
Monday by her ability to follow simple instructions.
They said Giffords was responding to verbal commands by raising
two fingers of her left hand and even managed to give a thumbs-up,
AP reported. They also said her brain remained swollen, but
the pressure wasn't increasing --- a good sign for her
"That's why we are much more optimistic and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief after about the third day," LeMole, who described Giffords' condition as stable, said Monday.
Still, experts said Giffords likely suffered some permanent
damage, but it's not yet clear how extensive that damage might
Dr. David Langer, director of cerebrovascular research at the
Cushing Neuroscience Institutes, part of North Shore/Long Island
Jewish Medical Center in Great Neck, N.Y., said: "She's probably
going to survive in all likelihood, but months or even a year from
now we may not know what her ultimate prognosis will be."
"She'll likely have a deficit in the near term, but we don't know if she'll end up in a wheelchair like James Brady [President Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was injured by a bullet during a 1981 assassination attempt on the president] or a functioning congresswoman. We can't know," added Langer, who was not involved with Giffords' care.
Giffords was gravely injured, 13 others were wounded, and six
people, including a 9-year-old girl, were killed when a 22-year-old
man, Jared Loughner, pulled out a semiautomatic Glock pistol in
front of a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, where the congresswoman
was meeting constituents. A Democrat, she was first elected to the
House of Representatives in 2006.
But the fact that she's alive is a bit of a miracle.
According to Langer, 90 percent of people with gunshot wounds to
the head die.
"This sounds like a relatively mild form of a gunshot wound and that does happen, based on the trajectory," Langer explained. "Certainly she has the opportunity to be as best as she can, given the aggressiveness of what [her doctors] have done. She has a chance of making a good recovery, but good has a lot of different meanings."
News reports say the bullet entered the back left of Giffords'
brain and exited in the front, staying its course only on the left
side of the brain.
"The back of the brain is the occipital and that controls the right side of your vision," said Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of neurosurgery and spine surgery at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City. "I would say it's highly likely, if it entered the left occipital, she's going to have some vision impairment."
Beyond that, a great deal depends on the exact trajectory of the
bullet, which isn't yet clear to those outside Giffords' operating
"Did it exit from the front or from the side? If it went all the way through, that would be her personality, her reasoning [assuming Rep. Giffords is right-handed]. That part of the brain is you," Cohen said. "The brain is real estate. It's all location, location, location. It depends on which part of the brain gets injured."
Giffords' doctors were reporting that she is able to follow
simple instructions, which might include asking her to raise two
fingers, Cohen said. That's a positive sign.
"If the bullet had gone through the front, she wouldn't be following commands," Cohen added.
But Giffords faces many near- and long-term challenges.
In the first 48 to 72 hours, the acute phase right after
surgery, her brain has likely swollen from the accident so doctors
are no doubt engaged in life-saving measures to keep the swelling
down, which means administering steroid medications and removing
part of the skull, Cohen said.
"The brain is tucked inside the skull, which is protection. Now it [the skull] becomes your enemy because it can't swell. It becomes a pressure cooker," he said.
The piece of the skull will be put back in place once the
swelling subsides, but Giffords also faces the possibility of
infection because a non-sterile object -- the bullet -- entered her
body. She is likely receiving antibiotics for this, Cohen said.
Much also depends on the speed at which the bullet entered the
brain. Speed sends off shock waves that can damage surrounding
areas. There may also be bleeding or bone fragments, which add
injury, Cohen explained.
"It's a series of hurdles for the victim," he said. "Whatever part of the brain that that bullet went through, even if it was a small cylinder of trajectory, that [area] is now permanently injured [but] the repercussions are unknown. There's some permanent and some recoverable damage depending on how injured that part of the brain gets," he added.
"It's a traumatic brain injury [but] she's young and she's otherwise healthy," Cohen said. "She'll be able to recover some and, depending on the injury, her recovery can take up to a year."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on
traumatic brain injury.
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