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Giffords Could Be Released Within Days Or Weeks

Doctors in Tucson, Ariz., are talking about the day Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will leave the hospital. One of the surgeons taking care of her says she may be just days to weeks from being transferred to a rehabilitation center.

That bit of hopeful news was delivered at a hospital briefing Monday. It comes after a string of mostly positive news from her doctors since the shooting Jan. 8. But the positive news may not provide a completely accurate picture of what's going on.

Physicians taking care of Giffords have called her recovery to this point a miracle. A bullet traveled all the way through the left side of her brain -- from front to back, doctors say. Just days after the shooting, they reported she was able to follow simple commands. Then, during a visit from fellow members of Congress last week, she opened her eyes. Doctors were almost giddy.

On Saturday, a breathing tube was removed from Giffords' mouth, and her husband Mark Kelly said she smiled.

"Mark told me that he thought he may have seen a smile," said Dr. Randall Friese, associate medical director at the University Medical Center Trauma Center. "We're all very optimistic, so we could be wrong. But we all want the best, and sometimes we see what we want to see, but if he says she's smiling, I buy it."

On Saturday, surgeons performed a tracheotomy on Giffords -- installing a new breathing tube in her throat and inserting a feeding tube. They also repaired damage to the top of her eye socket on the right side. Giffords was taken off a respirator, and her condition was upgraded from critical to serious.

"I'm happy to say that within a few hours of the surgery, she was waking up," said Dr. Michael Lemole, a neurosurgeon at UMC. "Through the weekend, she came back to the same baseline she'd been before the surgery -- that same level of interaction she's been having with us. And that's all very good."

Later a reporter asked a question that has come up at nearly every briefing: How much movement does Giffords have on the right and left sides of her body?

"I'm going to be real cagey with you here, like I have been in the past," Lemole said. "The family really doesn't want to go into that detail at this time."

While a lot of information has been released, it's clear that some is being held back. Giffords is a member of Congress and a public figure, but she still has the right to medical privacy. That means every piece of news the doctors have delivered so far was approved by her family first.

"No one is suggesting we're being fed false information," says Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman professor of law and professor of philosophy at University of Pennsylvania Law School.

"We're being fed information which is positive and hopeful, leaving open the possibility that she might well recover to a greater extent than some of our worst fears might suggest," Allen says.

Allen contends that the public should be grateful for the bits of information that have been released because under current privacy laws, Giffords family could have said nothing. And frankly, she says, under similar circumstances, that's what a lot of us would want.

"It's a little embarrassing, a little awkward, a little sensitive to have every aspect of one's self revealed to other people when one is in pain, when one doesn't look one's best, sound one's best." Allen says.

Maybe Giffords deserves a little private space, Allen suggests -- room to heal without all the gory details known to everyone.

Perhaps with that in mind, her doctors say they're not planning any more briefings until there's a significant change in Giffords' status.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.