Physicians are saying that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is lucky, if you can say that anyone who was shot in the head is “lucky.”
Giffords, who was gunned down Saturday in the Tucson massacre that left six people dead and 13 injured, took a bullet that “luckily” didn’t travel through the center of her brain. And it didn’t go through one brain hemisphere to another. That’s the good news.
The New York Times offered one of the best accounts of the press conference by the doctors who operated on Giffords at University Medical Center (UMC) in Tucson, explaining her circumstances.
Chief of neurosurgery Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., said that the bullet that hit Giffords went through the left side of her brain “from back to front.” It entered the back of her head and came out through the front. So it didn’t cross from one side of the brain to the other, and it did not go through crucial areas that would hamstrung any recovery.
The left side of the brain governs strength and sensation on the right side of the body, along with speech.
UMC’s head of trauma surgery Dr. Peter Rhee told reporters, “Over all, this is about as good as it’s going to get. When you get shot in the head and a bullet goes through your brain, the chances of you living are very small, and the chances of you waking up and actually following commands is even much smaller than that.”
Doctors are being upbeat and “cautiously optimistic” about Giffords, in part because the congresswoman has been able to respond to some simple commands, as Rhee mentioned. But the physicians wouldn’t handicap her odds for a full recovery, and noted that the process could take months to years.
Press reports credit swift action by Giffords’ 20-year-old intern, and the fact that she was in the hospital within 38 minutes, with saving her life.
According to The Arizona Republic, University of Arizona intern Daniel Hernandez applied pressure on Giffords’ head wounds after she was shot and held her upright so she wouldn’t choke on her own blood. Remarkably, he said that Giffords was conscious at this point.
When Giffords got to the hospital, doctors took off part of her skull, to alleviate the pressure from brain swelling. They also removed the part of her brain that had been damaged, but it was not very much tissue.
The congresswoman has been put into a medically induced coma, and is being awakened periodically so doctors can monitor her progress.
Expect a barrage of press stories about Giffords’ prognosis. The Los Angeles Times has already printed one, headlined “Head Trauma is Not a Death Sentence.” That story quoted a trauma neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Dr. Ian Armstrong.
“I’ve seen every foreign body in the world pass through the brain, and I never cease to be amazed that some seem to survive and do amazingly well,” Armstrong told the Los Angeles Times.
That may be so, but recovery from brain injury is usually not easy, even in the best of circumstances. Just surviving is the first, but not the last, of the tough challenges Giffords faces.
And during her recovery, how will Giffords be able to fulfill her duties as a congresswoman representing Arizona in Washington?