HOUSTON — Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was released from a Houston hospital on Wednesday, five months after being shot in the head during a political event.
Giffords will move in with her husband — astronaut Mark Kelly — who lives in League City, a Houston suburb near Johnson Space Center. She will continue therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann, where she has been undergoing intensive rehabilitation since late January.
Giffords, who was shot in the left side of her head and has been struggling to re-learn how to speak and walk, will be assisted by a 24-hour home health care provider, according to a statement from the hospital.
“Anyone who knows Gabby knows that she loves being outside,” Kelly said in the statement. “Living and working in a rehab facility for five months straight has been especially challenging for her. She will still go to TIRR each day but from now on, when she finishes rehab, she will be with her family.”
Giffords’ release from the hospital was met with excitement by her staff, including Ron Barber, who also survived the shooting at a meet-and-greet with constituents in Tucson, Ariz. Six people died and a dozen others were wounded in the Jan. 8 attack.
“When I went home from the hospital after surgery, I was so nervous, but boy it’s wonderful to be home in your own surroundings, to be able to have things on your own schedule,” Barber said. “I’m sure it’ll be uplifting and healing for her, too.”
Giffords underwent surgery last month to replace a piece of her skull that was removed shortly after the shooting to allow her brain to swell. Until the surgery, she wore a helmet to protect her head.
“Gabby has recovered well from the surgery,” said neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim. “Her wounds have healed, she has resumed full physical therapy without a helmet, and I am comfortable that she can be discharged.”
Kelly just returned from commanding the shuttle Endeavour on its 16-day mission to the International Space Station. Giffords traveled twice to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to see her husband off — the first attempted launch was delayed.
Giffords and Kelly met in 2003 during a young leaders’ forum in China, then married in November 2007 in Tucson. Giffords then split her time between Washington, D.C., and Arizona, while Kelly remained in Houston. The two saw each other whenever and wherever they could.
The first clear pictures of Giffords since the shooting were posted Sunday on Facebook, showing her smiling broadly and looking straight at the camera. In another, more candid shot, she is grinning alongside her mother. In both, her smile is largely unchanged, though her hair is shorter and darker. The pictures gave few indications she has been injured, let alone shot in the forehead.
Giffords’ doctors said she has made remarkable progress, but cautioned she faces many challenges and months of intensive outpatient care. She was shot in the left side of her head, which controls speech and communication.
Her chief of staff told the Arizona Republic last week that Giffords struggles to find words and put together sentences, and t hat it remains unclear whether she eventually will be able to resume work in Congress.
“Her words are back more and more now, but she’s still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing,” Carusone told the Republic. “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.”
A judge has declared shooting suspect Jared Loughner mentally incapable of participating in his defense and sent him to a federal facility where doctors will try to treat his condition and make it possible to put him on trial.
With an open Senate seat, some Arizona Democrats had viewed Giffords as one of their best hopes for gaining votes in the Senate, before the Jan. 8 shooting threw her political future into question.
The shooting has created something of a vacuum, with few candidates willing to declare their interest until Giffords’ situation is clarified. Carusone has only said that the congresswoman has until May 2012 to decide.
Barber said he hopes she’ll return to Tucson soon.
“This is just one of the next really major steps toward her recovery,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll count this as another step just as we all do.”
Associated Press Writer Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.