HOUSTON Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the home of her astronaut husband on Wednesday, leaving behind a Houston hospital where she began to rebuild her life after a gunman shot her in the head five months ago.
Giffords' release begins a new phase in her recovery. She struggles to speak and walk, and will need daily, intensive therapy. Whether she will ever recover enough to resume her congressional duties is still unknown.
Doctors at TIRR Memorial Hermann, her husband Mark Kelly and experts who have been observing Giffords' recovery emphasize though that going home is a key milestone and could help stimulate her progress.
"Anyone who knows Gabby knows that she loves being outside," Kelly said in a statement released by the hospital. "Living and working in a rehab facility for five months straight has been especially challenging for her."
Giffords will go to the hospital each day. Now, when she finishes rehab, "she will be with her family," he added.
The congresswoman will move to Kelly's home in League City, a suburb near the Johnson Space Center. Her therapy will continue with the team that has been treating her since her arrival in Houston.
Giffords was shot in the left side of the head, the side that controls speech and communication, on Jan. 8 while meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the attack, including the lawmaker.
Her release from the hospital was met with excitement by her staff.
"When I went home from the hospital after surgery, I was so nervous, but boy it's wonderful to be home in your own surroundings, to be able to have things on your own schedule," said Ron Barber, who also survived the shooting.
"I'm sure it'll be uplifting and healing for her, too," he said.
Giffords underwent surgery last month to replace a piece of her skull that was removed shortly after the shooting to allow her brain to swell. Until the surgery, she wore a helmet to protect her head.
"Gabby has recovered well from the surgery," neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim said. "Her wounds have healed, she has resumed full physical therapy without a helmet, and I am comfortable that she can be discharged."
Kelly just returned from commanding the shuttle Endeavour on its 16-day mission to the International Space Station. Giffords traveled twice to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to see her husband off the first attempted launch was delayed.
Giffords and Kelly met in 2003 during a young leaders' forum in China, then married in 2007 in Tucson. Giffords then split her time between Washington, D.C., and Arizona, while Kelly remained in Houston.
The two saw each other whenever and wherever they could.
The first clear pictures of Giffords since the shooting were posted Sunday on Facebook. The photos had few indications that she has been injured, let alone shot in the forehead.
One showed her smiling broadly and looking straight at the camera. In another, more candid shot, she is grinning alongside her mother. In both, her smile is largely unchanged, though her hair is shorter and darker.
Giffords' doctors said she has made remarkable progress, but cautioned that she faces many challenges and months of intensive outpatient care.
Her chief of staff told the Arizona Republic last week that Giffords can speak, but struggles to express complex thoughts and sentences.
"Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing," Pia Carusone told the newspaper.
"Add it all together, and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs," Carusone said. "But when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had the trouble."
A judge has declared shooting suspect Jared Loughner mentally incapable of participating in his defense and sent him to a federal facility where doctors will try to treat his condition and make it possible to put him on trial.
With an open Senate seat in Arizona, some Democrats had viewed Giffords as one of their best hopes for winning it, before the Jan. 8 shooting threw her political future into question.
The shooting has created something of a vacuum, with few candidates willing to declare their interest until Giffords' situation is clarified. Carusone has only said that the congresswoman has until May 2012 to decide.
Barber said he hopes she'll return to Tucson soon.
"This is just one of the next really major steps toward her recovery," he said. "I'm sure she'll count this as another step just as we all do."
Left: Gabrielle Giffords photographed at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, May 17, 2011. (P.K. Weis, SouthwestPhotoBank.com)