by Jim Nintzel
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords reached another milestone in her recovery yesterday when doctors at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center replaced a section of her skull that was destroyed when she was shot in the head earlier this year.
Dr. Dong Kim, director of Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann Hospital, said at a press conference today that the three-and-a-half-hour surgery went well and a post-surgical CT scan showed that “everything looks great.”
Although doctors had saved the portion of Giffords’ skull that was removed when she underwent surgery after being shot in the head on Jan. 8, they decided to use a ceramic substitute rather than her own bone. The implant was built to fit a model of Giffords’ skull that was created using CT scans.
“It’s porous,” said Kim. “Over the next several months, her own bone cells will migrate into this porous material and will lay down calcium. So if in two years, somebody gets a CT scan, you can see the newborn bone having formed.”
Doctors also inserted a permanent shunt underneath Giffords skin that runs from the left side of her head down into her abdomen to that excess brain fluid can drain away from her brain. Kim said the shunt, which is equipped with a valve to automatically regulates the device, would not be visible.
“You can’t see it from the outside,” he said. “Many patients in the U.S. have shunts. It’s something you can have for the rest of your life and it doesn’t impede anything.”
Giffords’ husband, NASA Cmdr. Mark Kelly, said in an interview with the PBS Newshour that he was happy to hear the good news while he continues his mission aboard the International Space Station.
“She’s doing really well,” Kelly said. “Everything went as planned. Her neurosurgeons are very happy.”
Dr. Gerard Francisco, the chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said that Giffords would return to TIRR and continue her rehabilitation program in a few days.
The repair of her skull means that Giffords will no longer have to wear a helmet to protect her brain while undergoing physical therapy.
Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief of staff, said that Giffords would be happy to be rid of the helmet.
“She hates the helmet,” Carusone said. “She tells us that every day. … Someone wrote 5-17-11 on the helmet as the final date. That’s it. So it was an exciting week for her. She’s been looking forward to this for awhile.”
To lower risk of infection, doctors had to once again shave Giffords’ head.
“I think it looks quite cute, if you ask me,” Kim said. “Her hair will grow back quite evenly and soon.”
The doctors declined to speculate on when Giffords might be discharged from the hospital or able to return to work.
“For a patient to come as far as she has in that period of time after the kind of injury that she’s had is almost miraculous,” Kim said. “The rate of recovery, though, is variable over time and we can’t predict exactly how much more progress she’s going to make going forward. So it would be very hard to say when she can return to work, but she has done very well so far and we hope that progress continues.”
Francisco added that Giffords has continued to get stronger physically since she was seen walking up a staircase to a flight to Florida last month and her communication skills are improving.
“We’re having fun conversations,” Francisco said. “She’s cracked me up several times. She’s told some jokes. We’ve had good, social conversations as well.”
Carusone said that Giffords had been keeping track of the current events.
“We update her on what’s going on,” Carusone said. “You know, Trump’s not running for president or whatever the news is. So she’s interested, absolutely. Curious and interested.”
And, Carusone added, Giffords has “complained about being the hospital. She misses Tucson.”