Gabrielle Giffords recovering from skull surgery

U.S. Representative from Arizona Gabrielle Giffords in February of 2010, left and the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday, May 16, 2011. AP Photo

Gabrielle Giffords, space shuttle Endeavour
U.S. Representative from Arizona Gabrielle Giffords in February of 2010, and the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday, May 16, 2011.
AP Photo

(CBS/AP) Gabrielle Giffords is recovering after surgery to repair her skull. On Wednesday doctors put a plastic implant in place to cover her brain, according to a statement from TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston.

Her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, now orbiting Earth on the space shuttle, said he was pleased. "She's doing really well. Everything went as planned," Kelly said in a Thursday morning interview. "Her neurosurgeons are very happy, she's recuperating and she's actually getting back to therapy today."

A gunman shot Giffords in the head more than four months ago in Tucson, Ariz., and doctors had to remove part of her skull to relieve pressure on her brain.

Doctors familiar with the procedure and not involved in her care called it fairly routine, saying it would improve her quality of life and help her feel more normal.

"It's a very significant milestone in the recovery," said Dr. Robert Friedlander, chair of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The implant - or bone flap, as doctors call it - will protect the brain and the skull, Friedlander said. It will allow Giffords to freely move about without her helmet, adorned with the Arizona state flag, for the first time since she began therapy in late January.

In addition, it makes therapy easier because the helmet can be uncomfortable and cumbersome, Friedlander said.

Dr. Reid Thompson, chairman of neurological surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said there is also an important psychological element to removing the helmet.

"They look in the mirror and they don't see someone who's been injured or shot. They look normal," Thompson said.

The flap is custom made to slip perfectly into place based on a three-dimensional model of the skull built from a CT image, Thompson said. Usually, the implant is made of clear or white plastic, and tightened into place with titanium screws.

Bill Kolter, a spokesman for Biomet, the manufacturer of Gifffords' implants, said the material is porous to allow bone to fuse to the edges of the object in the future.

"She'll look like everyone and when walking down the street you wouldn't know," Thompson said.

From the start, doctors have marveled not only at Giffords survival, but also at her recovery.

Within weeks of arriving at TIRR Memorial Hospital in late January, Giffords' family and staff reported she could speak a few words, then sing some songs and string together short sentences. By March, she was able to walk with assistance, according to her doctors, and her personality was shining through.

Still, doctors caution that she has a long recovery ahead of her and have repeatedly talked about reaching a new "normal."

  • David W Freeman

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