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Giffords' doctors upbeat

Doctors said Monday that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' had given a thumbs-up sign and tried to grab her breathing tube -- heartening developments two days after surgery for a gunshot wound to the head.

Dr. Peter Rhee said surgeons had seen many encouraging signs. On Sunday and Monday, Giffords was able to respond to a verbal command by raising two fingers with her left hand.

"When she did that, we were having a party in there," Rhee said. And even while sedated, she has reached for her breathing tube. "That's a purposeful movement. That's a great thing," Rhee said. Also, while her brain remains swollen, the pressure isn't increasing -- a good sign.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Lemole of Tucson's University Medical Center said swelling from such an injury typically peaks around the third day, so doctors "can breathe a collective sigh of relief" after reaching that point today.

Rhee said two specialists from the Washington, D.C., area are being brought in. Col. Geoffrey Ling and Dr. James Ecklund have experience in treating combat wounds.

Recovering from a gunshot to the head depends on the bullet's path. While doctors are optimistic about Giffords' odds, it can take weeks to months to assess the damage.

Doctors say the bullet traveled the length of the left side of Giffords' brain, entering the back of the skull and exiting the front.

Fortunately, it stayed on one side of her brain, not hitting the so-called "eloquent areas" in the brain's center where such wounds almost always prove fatal.

Importantly, Giffords' nonverbal responses Sunday to simple commands in the emergency room -- things like "squeeze my hand" imply "a very high level of functioning in the brain," Lemole said.

Now, her biggest threat is brain swelling. Surgeons removed half of her skull to give the tissues room to expand without additional bruising, Lemole said.

That bone can be reimplanted once the swelling abates, a technique the military uses with war injuries, said Rhee, Lemole's colleague and a trauma surgeon.

Adding to Giffords' good prospects is that paramedics got her to the operating room in 38 minutes, her doctors said. Now she is being kept in a medically induced coma, deep sedation that rests her brain. It requires a ventilator, meaning she cannot speak. Doctors periodically lift her sedation to do tests and said she continues to respond well to commands.

The brain's left side does control speech abilities and the movement and sensation of the body's right side, Lemole noted. But he wouldn't speculate on lasting damage, saying, "we've seen the full gamut" in such trauma.

That's the mystery of brain injury: There's no way to predict just how much disability a wound that traverses multiple regions will leave, because neural connections are so individual.

"The same injury in me and you could have different effects," said Dr. Bizhan Aarabi, chief of neurotrauma at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center.

"The belief is if you get shot in the head, you're dead, but it isn't like that," agreed the University of Miami's Dr. Ross Bullock, chief of neurotrauma at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"Every patient is an individual and more so with a gunshot than anything else," he said.

There are few statistics, but doctors agree that well over 90 percent of gunshot wounds to the head are fatal. Aarabi cited his own study of 600 Maryland cases that found 95 percent were dead before arriving at the hospital.

Survivors have something in common with Giffords, Aarabi said: A good "Glasgow coma score," a way to measure responsiveness, upon arriving at the hospital. That presurgery outlook is important because doctors can't reverse the bullet's damage, just remove fragments to fight infection and swelling. Giffords' surgeons said they didn't have to remove a lot of dead brain tissue.

It can take weeks to tell the extent of damage, and months of intense rehabilitation to try to spur the brain's capacity to recover.

"We talk about recovery in months to years," Lemole said.

Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard reported from Washington.

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