On Jan. 8, Gabrielle Giffords was shot through the head at point-blank range. Two weeks later, as she lay mute and glassy-eyed in a hospital bed, her husband, Mark Kelly, began to video-record her recovery. The result, excerpted last night on ABC’s 20/20, is one of the greatest home movies ever made: a day-by-day portrait of a crippled brain repairing itself.
The brain has powers unlike any machine. It organizes the world. It organizes itself. When it’s damaged—even when it’s transected by a skull-shattering bullet—it can regain not just knowledge, but the ability to learn. If it can’t use old circuits, it invents new ones. Where there’s a will, the brain finds a way.
Giffords was shot through her left hemisphere. The bullet took out chunks of her cortex that processed speech and language comprehension. In the opening scenes, captured in late January, she lies motionless, her skull cracked across its dome like an egg. Her eyes are glazed. Her face is blank.
Kelly and a team of therapists get to work. Their work is to make Giffords work, because that’s how the brain learns: by doing. Kelly pats her arm, clasps her hand, tells her to give him a high five. A therapist manipulates Giffords’ forearm, tapping it to a tune. The attendants constantly challenge, prod, and encourage her. “You look great,” Kelly tells her, though she looks awful. “You just got a little work to do.”
Kelly puts Giffords’ shoes on a chair. “Here are your tennis shoes,” he tells her. “You’re going out for a jog today. How does that sound?” He instructs her to hold up his wedding ring on her finger, then take it off. “Can you do that, Sweetie?” he asks. “There you go.” He gets her to make a thumbs-up gesture. Two weeks later, the therapists are pushing her to walk. They assist her useless right leg so she can exercise her left and regain her sense of balance.
There are thinking tasks, too. They show her a magazine article. They lay pictures on a table. They make her select cards from a hand. They get her to draw. Sometimes, like a child, she learns by observing her teachers. They show her how to sigh and pucker. “Watch me,” says a therapist. “Watch me,” Giffords repeats. Now and then, she closes her eyes in fatigue or frustration. It’s hard work.
Having lost some parts of her brain, Giffords has to enlist others. At first, unable to rotate her eyes, she learns to identify and remove Kelly’s ring using her sense of touch. Her therapists feed her phrases—“Zip up your…,” “You tell time with a…”—so that she can reabsorb, through context, words that were blown away. But the chief teaching tool is music, which persists in mental regions safely clear of the devastated language centers. Through melody, she recovers lyrics and eventually spoken words.
“I love…” a therapist sings to Giffords. “You,” the patient mouths back. At five weeks, Giffords is chanting along: “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” A friend playing a piano keyboard leads her: “It’s great to see you looking…” Giffords finishes the sentence: “swell.” Later, she grins from ear to ear, singing with amusement, “Girls just want to have fun.”
Since emotion and cognition are interwoven, emotional stimulation is crucial to Giffords’ recovery. “Can you smile, Sweetie?” Kelly asks. When she doesn’t respond, he teases her: “That’s not a smile!” At this, the left side of her mouth curls up. “That’s better!” he laughs.
At four weeks, Giffords speaks her first word. She learns to sigh. She gestures while talking. She reaches out in a fluid motion to gently touch her therapist. She cries but can’t find the word for what she feels: sadness. The therapist assures her that life will get better and gives her a hug. Then the therapist accidentally knocks a water bottle off the table. Giffords begins to laugh.