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Gabrielle Giffords: what shuttle launch might say about her political future

The notable recovery of Rep.

The notable recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) has put on display her strength and determination – qualities that are furthering speculation she will enjoy a second life in politics.

The Arizona congresswoman was shot point-blank in the head near Tucson on Jan. 8, in a shooting spree that left six dead and Representative Giffords and 13 others injured.

Despite initial worry she would be incapacitated for life, Giffords is now being cheered for a steady comeback. On Friday, she is planning to make her first public appearance: She will be in Cape Canaveral, Fla., alongside President Obama and his family as they watch the takeoff of the space shuttle Endeavour, which will be commanded by Mark Kelly, her husband.

In a recent issue of Time magazine, which named Giffords one of its 100 “most influential people,” Mr. Obama wrote that she “embodies the best of what public service should be: hard work and fair play, hope and resilience.”

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Reports of Giffords’s recovery at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a medical rehabilitation and research facility in Houston, indicate that she is working to regain strength on the right-hand side of her body, although she has maintained full use of her left side. Also, she is able to speak short phrases and can stand and take small steps.

Physical therapy involves having to push a grocery cart up and down hallways, as well as practicing bowling and indoor golf, both of which she does from a wheelchair. She is also writing using her left hand after years of naturally using her right.

“She shows a lot more independence right now, that’s what emerging. She’s her own person,” says Dr. Gerard Francisco, chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

According to Dr. Ezriel Kornel, a neurological surgeon in White Plains, N.Y., Giffords’s progress is due to “a testament of the medical care she is receiving, along with her will and her drive.”

Dr. Kornel was part of the medical team that treated James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary who was struck in 1981 by a bullet intended for Mr. Reagan. Kornel sees a correlation between how Mr. Brady and Giffords reacted to their respective situations and their strong desire to get better.

“With Jim, there was a willingness to do what was demanded,” says Kornel. “There was a motivation mostly as a father and as a husband to get well as much as possible. He also had a recognition of what his deficits were but was willing to be accepting and yet push as much as he could to get beyond them.”

In the case of Giffords, he says, it’s obvious that she possesses an optimistic personality, which can be critical to a full recovery.

“What I think is always the most important thing is that someone be able to return to fundamentally the person that they were so they can appreciate their life,” Kornel says. “Even if [Giffords] had some speech impairment, even if she can’t control her right side as much as she’d like, if she still loves the same music, loves the same people, appreciates this beautiful sunny day, she can make her life into anything she wants it to be.”

No decision has been made yet on what will happen with Giffords’s congressional seat, for which she won a third term last November. Pia Carusone, Giffords’s chief of staff, told The Arizona Republic that there would probably not be an assessment of the congresswoman’s ability to return to office until after Christmas.

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“It’s unfair to set expectations on her in any way,” said Ms. Carusone. “We all want the best. We want her to make the best recovery. Would a triumphant return be amazing? Yes. But first of all, her close friends and family will take anything.”

Still, some speculate that Giffords could run for the US Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona at the beginning of 2013. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not yet recruited a candidate, which has led to the speculation.