by Jim Nintzel
Ron Barber is ready to go back to work at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ office.
“I just can’t wait to be back and be alongside a great staff of amazing group of people,” says Barber, the district director who was shot twice on Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire at a Congress on Your Corner event. “I’ve been wanting to get back almost since I got out of the hospital. I had unrealistic expectations that I could be back in a month or less and that was obviously not the case, so I’m learning how to be patient with it.”
Barber, whose first day back on the job will be Tuesday, July 5, says he’s on a “short leash” from his doctor, who has told him he can only work four hours a day.
But it’s still an important step for the 65-year-old Barber, who was nearly killed on Jan. 8. One bullet passed through his cheek and out the back of his neck; the other hit him in the upper thigh. It was only the expert work of surgeons at UMC’s trauma center that saved him from having his left leg amputated.
Six people were killed in the shooting, including Gabe Zimmerman, who had worked closely with Barber in the congressional office for four years, and U.S. District Court Judge John Roll.
Another 13 were wounded, including Giffords, who is still recovering in Houston after being shot in the head.
Barber was in Yuma yesterday for the dedication of a new federal courthouse that will bear Roll’s name.
Barber had high praise for Roll at the ceremony. He first met Roll when they were both involved in campus politics in the mid-’60s. While they later fell out of touch, they reconnected when Giffords asked Barber to reach out to the federal judiciary.
“He was the real deal,” Barber says. “Nothing phony about him. I just wish he could have been here today to see the groundbreaking.”
“She thought the inadequacies of the courthouse in Yuma were affecting the Tucson court because they had to take a lot of cases that they couldn’t fit in this very old courthouse in Yuma,” Barber says. “It’s just not a good place to work…. Security is terrible. She understood all of that and she really went to bat for John Roll and his desire to get the courthouse built.”
Nearly six months after Jan. 8, Barber remains haunted by the shooting. His leg remains almost entirely numb below the knee. At night, he typically feels severe pain in his foot.
“By 7 o’clock, my foot is on fire usually, but I’ve have a couple of good days here, so I’m hoping that’s a new norm for me,” Barber says.
He’s also surprised by how exhausted he gets. He used to be a guy who needed six hours of sleep a night; he’d be out of bed by 5:30 and off to the congressional office by 7 a.m.
But now, even after nine hours of sleep a night, he finds it hard to get out of bed at 8 a.m.
“I really have a lot of fatigue,” he says. “I get that there’s this whole healing process going on, but it’s just not like how I used to be. … By mid-afternoon, I’m really tired and by 7 p.m. I want to go to bed, so it’s hard for me to to get used to this, because it’s not my style and the way I’ve been throughout all of my life.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Barber would awaken three or four times a night. But now, it’s usually just once.
“I wake up almost every single night at 3 a.m.,” he says. “I look at the clock and it’s 3 o’clock every single night. It’s usually I’m dreaming. A lot of time, it’s about the congresswoman and Gabe. I wake up and I have a lot of trouble getting back to sleep. I do get back to sleep. I used to be interrupted three or four times a night, so this is OK compared to that.”
But seeing Giffords during her trip to Tucson over the Father’s Day weekend has helped.
“I think my spirits are really lifted and it was a real help to my healing to be with her for a while,” Barber says. “It was really great. I don’t really have the words to describe how wonderful it was. We just had a great time together and it was the first time we’d seen each other since she left Tucson, so it was a big deal for me and I think it might have been for her, too.”
Barber says Giffords is “doing incredible well.”
“I was totally blown away by it,” he says. “We had a long time when we were together and talking on a sofa and I talked to her about a lot of things, a whole range of topics. Every single thing that I talked to her about, she got. All the input was getting through and she was understanding what I was saying and her responses were really appropriate. She’s still working on expanding the length of sentences and that kind of thing, but there’s no doubt in my mind that that she understood and responded appropriately to everything that I talked to her about.”
Coming to Tucson, Barber says, was an important milestone in Giffords’ recovery, as was seeing the launch of the Endeavour space shuttle, having surgery to replace a section of her skull shattered in the assassination attempt and getting out of the Houston hospital where she had been recuperating.
“She’s had all these milestones she’s set for herself and she’s done them all,” Barber says. “I hope to see her back in Tucson for another visit soon.”
He reports that Giffords misses Tucson.
“She talks about it all the time,” he says. “She loves this town and when she was here, she took a tour of the places she loves to go to—the Rialto, Raging Sage, Feast. I just know that it meant a lot for her to see them, even though she didn’t go in. That was a great part of the trip.”
Barber, who spent most of his career with the state of Arizona working with developmentally disabled adults, says he’s seen people with head injuries who suffered from the same type of aphasia that Giffords is now wrestling with.
“I’m really confident, having seen her, that she’s going to be back to as close to 100 percent as she can get over the next couple of months,” he says. “For the most part, people are giving her the time she needs to do rehab.”
Come Tuesday, he’ll be back at work at the office, keeping things together in Giffords’ absence.
“I am still a little apprehensive but I’m ready to do it,” Barber says. “I told my doctor, ‘I won’t know if I can do this unless I do it.’ You can only speculate so long. You have to get back into it.”