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Giffords, in major step forward, sits up in bed ; Gillibrand sees her open her eyes

Doctors said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sat up in bed Thursday, part of "a major leap forward" in her recovery from a bullet wound to the brain. The recovery seemed to begin a day earlier in the presence of her close friend Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

Visiting Giffords in the hospital Wednesday, Gillibrand stroked Giffords' hand and responded with amazement as she saw her wounded colleague open her eyes.

"This is a major leap forward," Giffords' neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, said Thursday about the scene Gillibrand witnessed Wednesday. "This is a major milestone for her, and we're hoping that she crosses through many more."

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recounted her moments with Giffords in an interview with reporters on Air Force One.

"It was such a moment, and we were in such tears of joy watching this," said Gillibrand, who traveled to Tucson with President Obama to visit the wounded Arizona congresswoman and to attend a memorial service for victims of Saturday's mass shooting, which claimed six lives.

After Giffords opened her eyes, she started to reach out and touch her husband's ring, his watch and his wrist, Gillibrand said.

"The doctor was just so excited, he said, 'You don't understand; this is amazing what she is doing now, beyond our greatest hopes,' " Gillibrand said. "Then they decided we had to go, because it was a lot of excitement for her."

Gillibrand told reporters that she and other lawmakers -- Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. -- were pleased to have the chance to see Giffords.

When the lawmakers entered the hospital room, Giffords was with her doctor, her parents and her husband.

"We were telling her how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength," Gillibrand said.

"Then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do when she got better. We were holding her hand, and she was responding to our hand-holding, she was rubbing her hands and she was gripping our hands so we could we knew she could hear and understand what we were saying, she moved her leg. We knew she was responding."

The lawmakers continued to joke about what they were going to do together, and as they did so, Giffords "started to open her eyes, literally," Gillibrand said.

Seeing Giffords' left eye flickering, her husband, Mark Kelly, started saying: "Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes," Gillibrand said.

After about 30 seconds, Giffords did just that.

"You could tell she was desperately trying to focus, and it took enormous strength from her," Gillibrand said. "Mark is so happy because he can't believe it, and we are crying because we are witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us."

Kelly then said: "If you can see me, give us the thumbs up," Gillibrand said.

Hearing that, Giffords raised her hand and tried to hug her husband.

"She wanted us to know she was with us 100 percent and understood everything we were saying," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand and Giffords struck up a close friendship in 2007, their first year serving in the House, where they both served on the Armed Services Committee. They bonded as they took an interest in the human side of soldiering on a panel where the male members seemed focused mainly on the machinery of warfare.

A spokesman for Gillibrand said she and Giffords have been in close contact ever since. Just last week, Gillibrand and her husband joined Giffords and her husband for dinner in a Washington restaurant.

Wasserman Schultz, also a close friend of Gillibrand and Giffords, attributed Giffords' dramatic improvement Wednesday to "the power of friendship."

If it was that, the power kept exerting its influence Thursday, when doctors said they helped Giffords sit up and dangle her legs from her bed. The Arizona Democrat is now able to open her right eye, although it remains bandaged.

Physicians hope to remove her breathing tube and perhaps have her sit up in a chair sometime today.

Witnessing the beginnings of Giffords' recovery was a profound experience -- the equal, Gillibrand said, only of giving birth to her children.

"It was raw courage and raw strength, and it was so moving," Gillibrand said.

News wire services contributed to this report.