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Gabrielle Giffords Opens Her Eyes: How Families of Brain Injury Victims Find Hope

Gabrielle Gifford recovery, Shooting in Arizona

The makeshift shrine outside of the University Hospital shows support of Gabrielle Giffords.

Like the rest of America, I’ve been closely following Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ medical condition since the horrifying incident last week in which she was shot in the head. The first reports I heard on the day of the shooting were that she had passed away, which certainly seemed likely, given the fact that Jared Loughner apparently shot her at point blank range – in the head.  I was thrilled to hear within an hour or two of those first reports that she had, in fact, survived the shooting and was being rushed into surgery, and I have been so encouraged to hear that she continues to hold her own in the critical care unit of a Tucson hospital.  When, during his speech in Tucson, President Obama told the crowd that Rep. Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time earlier in the day, I let out an involuntary cheer, yelling out, “YES!” at the television screen.

I have a more personal interest in Rep. Giffords’ recovery because I know very, very well what it’s like for her family right now, camped out in the intensive care unit at her bedside, watching every muscle twitch and eyelid flicker for some hope, some sign that their daughter/wife/sister/friend is still there, still present inside her desperately injured brain, even as she remains semi-comatose and on a respirator.  I understand because for 38 torturous days last spring, between April 27 and May 31 2010, I sat at my oldest son’s bedside as he struggled to recover from a critical brain injury.

I remember the day my son first opened his eyes, and the day he first spoke, after the respirator had been removed. At the time, I wrote that hearing him speak to me for the first time after waking up from his coma was the best thing I’d ever experienced. Looking back, I still feel that way. That moment will remain with me forever as exhilarating beyond measure.  We were told it was a miracle, and it certainly felt like one.

Before this happened to our family, I knew next to nothing about brain injuries. Starting on the day of my son’s admission to the ICU, I quickly became immersed in learning as much as I could about the potentially devastating consequences of trauma (gunshot wounds, auto accidents, falls, assaults, etc) or hypoxia (lack of oxygen from injury, near-drowning, overdose or illness) to the brain.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1.7 million Americans – children and adults – sustain a traumatic brain injury and another 795,00 sustain an acquired brain injury (such as my son’s) each year. More than 3 million children and adults in this country currently live with some level of lifelong disability due to brain injuries.

Over the 38 days of my son’s hospitalization, our hope grew, as he seemed to be progressing. He was even moved from the first hospital in which he’d received care to a neurological rehabilitation program. He began the cognitive and physical therapies that are critical to brain injury recovery. But the injury his brain had sustained was ultimately too severe; my teenage son developed a rare complication of hypoxic brain injury called Delayed Post Hypoxic Lekoencephalopathy. It’s a cruel diagnosis, appearing as it does days or weeks after the families of a brain injured patient believe that their loved one has moved past the critical danger phase. My child died on May 31, 2010. He was 18 years old. Had he lived, he would have lived with severe mental and physical disabilities as a result of the brain injury he suffered.

All signs indicate that Rep. Giffords is meeting and exceeding every milestone for recovery in this rollercoaster early period for brain injury patients. I understand that doctors are now considering removing her breathing tube, which is hugely encouraging. And I know that every time she makes even the tiniest step forward, her family is cheering her on, praying for a full recovery.

I will also continue to cheer her on from afar, and my thoughts, prayers and empathy go out to those who love her, and who now spend their days and nights in a cramped hospital room, perched  next to her bed, listening to machines and monitors, and hoping that her miracle recovery continues.

Image by © Sandy Huffaker/Corbis

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