By Dr. Maria Simbra, KDKA-TV Health Editor
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — While at his son’s first golf lesson on the second Saturday of January, the University of Arizona’s University Medical Center Chief of Neurosurgery was urgently phoned by the trauma surgeon on call.
“He said, ‘Mike, the congresswoman has been shot. I think you need to know that.’ I wasn’t quite registering those words. But right around the same time, on the TV, her picture came up, and it said the congresswoman was shot. And all of a sudden it all clicked, everything. And I simply said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Dr. G. Michael Lemole, Jr. describes.
On the way to the hospital, he heard on the radio Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died. His heart sank. But the neurosurgery resident had a different story.
“He said, ‘She’s stable, and she’s on her way to the OR,’” says Dr. Lemole.
She was in surgery when he arrived. The bullet has passed through the left side of her brain – the side that controls speaking and understanding.
“The most encouraging thing was when they told me as I was operating on her, was that she had been following commands for them,” says Dr. Lemole.
But her brain was very swollen from the trauma and part of her skull had to be removed.
“We had a situation where if we tried to put it back, we’d be pushing. That’s never a good thing in the brain,” he explains.
The swelling went down, brow bone fractures were fixed and the high profile patient started her recovery.
She was able to show two fingers — which means she could understand and act accordingly — good signs that different parts of the brain were working together. But there were even more important signs.
“I’m essentially saying show me two fingers, as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, your kids are thinking of you,’ and you see a smile. Obviously there are huge ramifications as to the processing of the emotional memory there,” Dr. Lemole continues.
The last time Dr. Lemole saw her was the day she left for a rehab hospital in Houston.
“She was following those commands, her eyes were spontaneously open, she was looking around the room, she understood who was in the room, she recognized people,” he reports. “She’ll be recovering for the next several months, if not, years.”
And will he see her again?
“I hope so,” he says. “I’m told she’s going to make the victory lap around the ICU when she gets back.”
Dr. Lemole says every piece of information he has shared with the public was discussed and cleared with Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly.
Dr. Lemole says he and his team have been called heroes, which he hasn’t quite gotten used to. He sees it as just doing his job.
The Congresswoman is expected to attend the space shuttle launch of her astronaut husband. The launch is scheduled for April 29.