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Gabrielle Giffords' Brain Injury: FAQ

Giffords Recovering from Point-Blank Gunshot to Head
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Editors' note: WebMD will periodically update this FAQ as more information becomes available. The dateline will reflect the most recent update.

 

Jan. 27, 2011 -- Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has survived a point-blank gunshot wound to the head.

How is this possible? What can surgeons do? What are Giffords' chances of recovery -- and what will recovery mean?

To answer these and other questions, WebMD consulted prominent medical experts with experience in dealing with brain injuries, including gunshot wounds. We also consulted experts in assessment and rehabilitation of patients with brain injuries. None of these experts is treating Giffords, and none has access to her medical records.

These experts include:

  • Eugene S. Flamm, MD, professor and chairman of the department of neurological surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
  • Keith L. Black, MD, professor and chairman of the department of neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
  • Nina Zeldis, PhD, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine, formerly of Tel Aviv University in Israel, now in private practice.
  • Mark Brooks, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Glancy Rehabilitation Hospital in Duluth, Ga.
  • David Langer, the director of cerebrovascular research at Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Great Neck, N.Y.
  • Alan Manevitz, MD, a family psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in  New York. He has worked with many disaster victims, including those involved in Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

 

What part of Gabrielle Giffords' brain was injured?

The precise nature of Giffords' wound -- exactly which brain structures were destroyed -- has not been made public. What is known is that a 9 mm bullet fired point-blank at the left rear of her head passed  through the brain and exited the left front of her head near her left eye.

That part of the brain controls vision, language, and the ability to move the right side of the body. All of these functions are at risk, notes Keith L. Black, MD.

"The physicians in Arizona indicated that the wound was away from these critical structures," Black says. "Based on those comments, that is a positive side for the congresswoman."

The bullet did not pass from the left side of the brain to the right side of the brain. That almost certainly would have done far more damage, Black notes.

How bad is Giffords' brain injury?

It's a very, very serious wound. About 90% of people shot in the head do not survive, David Langer says.

But there is much reason for hope in Giffords' case.

Giffords' neurosurgeon, Michael Lemole, MD, says his patient is able to understand simple commands -- such as "Show me two fingers," and "Wiggle your toes" -- and to perform these tasks.

This is heartening news, says Eugene S. Flamm, MD.

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