When the gunman opened fire on Jan. 8, Pam Simon remembers thinking: It's really happening.
She watched as the gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords point-blank in the head. She watched him shoot Ron Barber, the district director who was standing next to Giffords. And then Simon was aware that she'd been shot herself.
"The odd thing that flashed through my mind was: It's finally happening," she says. "It's played out in rehearsal in our heads, and now it's happening. It's one of those nanosecond things that go through your head: The thing that you don't want to happen is really happening. And then, I think, the natural thing is to disbelieve: Someone's got a toy gun, or it's a prank."
But it was no toy, no prank. It was a gunman who, in a hail of gunfire, killed six people, wounded 13 more and shattered the lives of untold others.
Simon, a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher who has worked in Giffords' office for four years, took two bullets. One passed through her wrist; the other hit her chest, somehow missed all of her internal organs and ended up buried in her pelvis before doctors removed it.
"The doctors told me: 'You are one lucky lady,'" she says.
Seven weeks later, Simon is on the mend. She's walking without a limp and was able to put her cane away. Like the rest of Giffords' staff, she's seeing a counselor to work through the psychological wounds that linger; she's discovered, as trauma victims often do, that she runs out of energy at the end of the day—a big change for someone who has always been a high-energy person.
"I wear out faster than I used to," she says.
But she's feeling well enough to return to the office this week. On Thursday, she's supposed to be riding in the annual Tucson Rodeo Parade alongside Barber in a cart, while other staff members march alongside.
"I'm getting better every day," Simon says. "I'm ready to brave going back to work. It will be nice to be back."
There's plenty of work to do.
The staff in Tucson and Washington, D.C., is working overtime as Giffords continues her recovery at Houston's Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, where specialists are "pushing her really hard" with speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, says C.J. Karamargin, spokesman for the Congressional District 8 office. In recent weeks, Giffords has recovered some of her ability to speak and has recalled lyrics to songs.
"Great strides are continuing to be made, not just every week, but every day," Karamargin says.
Here in Tucson, the staff has seen a flood of well-wishes. One of Simon's first jobs will be ensuring that each one is acknowledged with a thank-you letter. She's used to that kind of work; just a few months ago, she oversaw the collection of nearly 10,000 Christmas cards for overseas soldiers and veterans.
In addition to the cards and letters, the Tucson office—which was open for business the Monday morning after the shooting—has seen a 23 percent spike in the number of calls for help since Jan. 8, according to Karamargin.
On average, the staff is opening 60 new cases a week for constituents who are having problems with their Social Security benefits, need help with visas and passports, are facing an impending foreclosure, or have other troubles. Earlier this month, by working with the State Department, office staffers managed to get a Tucsonan with medical issues on a flight home from Egypt in less than six hours. On Feb. 1, the staff helped a pair of veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars get awarded medals they earned but never received.
Last week, they even got a call from a Massachusetts man who said he couldn't get a response from his own member of Congress, says Karamargin. Word went out to Sen. John Kerry.
The Massachusetts man later called Giffords' office back.
"He was effusive in his praise for finally getting someone in his home state to call him back," Karamargin says.
With all of the extra work, Simon and Barber have been much-missed around the office, as is Gabe Zimmerman, the 30-year-old community outreach director who was killed in the shooting rampage. (Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors named the Davidson Canyon trailhead after Zimmerman; the supervisors also renamed Cañada del Oro linear river park for Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl slain in the attack, and will honor the other victims with markers at the Davidson Canyon trailhead.)
Rodd McLeod, who managed Giffords' campaigns in 2006 and 2010, is coming onboard temporarily to manage the Tucson office until Barber can return to work.
"There are some big shoes to fill," McLeod says.
Simon doesn't just want to get back to her work of helping seniors, veterans and other constituents in District 8. She's also determined to see something positive happen as a result of the events of Jan. 8.
"Any tragedy must have some good come out of it," Simon says. "Looking back at Pearl Harbor, horrible things happen, and wonderful things come out. I think it's a way to process the grieving."
She's not sure exactly how to do it, but she wants to find a way to help schools identify kids with mental illnesses so they can get help.
"When we see someone who is suffering from a mental illness, our tendency is to move away, to suspend the kid, to separate them," Simon says. "If we saw somebody who had a broken arm or cancer, we would try to help them."
Simon knows her way around schools; she taught for more than two decades at Tortolita Middle School and Mountain View High School in the Marana Unified School District. Two of her nurses, plus an X-ray technician and an Oro Valley police officer who responded to the call, were all in her eighth-grade English class.
And Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old accused shooter, attended Tortolita Middle School while Simon taught there, although she doesn't recall that their paths ever crossed.
Simon was lobbying state legislators on education issues when she first met Giffords as a freshman lawmaker at the Arizona Legislature.
"She was just a joy to work with," Simon says.
So much so that when Giffords kicked off her 2006 campaign for Congress at the Arizona Inn, Simon was there. After retiring later that year, Simon signed on as a volunteer and helped bring in teachers to aid the Giffords campaign, as she won a crowded Democratic primary and then went on to victory over conservative Republican Randy Graf in the blue wave of November 2006.
Giffords lured Simon out of retirement to work half-time at the congressional office. (Her husband jokes that in an office where everyone works 80 hours per week, a half-time job is still 40 hours.)
The job included being out at Congress on Your Corner events. She was excited about the Jan. 8 event, because they hadn't had a Congress on Your Corner during the lengthy campaign season.
She credits her training as a schoolteacher—and, particularly, the drills in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings—for helping her react when the gunfire erupted. Given the strange trajectory that the bullet took from her chest to her pelvis, Simon imagines she must have been ducking for cover when she was shot.
She hit the ground and played dead. Looking back on it, she remembers that is what her father told her to do if a bull ever got loose on the farm in Washington state where she grew up.
Then the gunfire stopped, and she could hear a struggle and shouts of, "Get the gun!" She could see the legs of Giffords and Barber. She could wiggle her fingers and toes.
A stranger put his hand on her shoulder and told her he'd stay with her until the ambulance arrived. He placed his sweater beneath her head and told her that he could hear sirens approaching.
"I didn't feel like I was going to die," Simon says. "I was in a lot of pain, but I didn't feel afraid and feel like, 'This is it.' I didn't have a panicked feeling. I just knew I wanted to get to the hospital really fast."
She's experienced many surreal moments since, from hearing the ambulance drivers describe her as "white female, age 63, GSW to the wrist, GSW to the chest," to having Barack and Michelle Obama stop by her hospital room to wish her well. She made a point of sitting up in the chair in her hospital room for the presidential visit; the Obamas sat on her bed.
She managed to get herself released from the hospital for a few hours to attend the memorial service at McKale Center the same day. Back at UMC later that night, she watched a replay of the memorial on the news.
"I never imagined a moment when a nurse would be dressing my gunshot wounds to the chest, and I would be watching the president of the United States kiss me on national TV," she says.