New photos of a smiling U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are drawing hundreds of well-wishers to her Facebook page on Sunday.
Thousands more have visited the social networking site just hours after the pictures were posted. They are the first clear snapshots of Giffords since the shooting five months ago during a constituent meet-and-greet in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Ariz.
The photos also represent an important step in a story of survival, strength and private perseverance for the American people.
Photojournalist P.K. Weis, who took the photos of Congresswoman Giffords on May 17, the day after the launch of Endeavour and just a day before she had her latest surgery, said any photographer in the country would have loved to have taken the photos.
After the photos were taken by Weis, she continued her remarkable recovery after her last surgery when doctors inserted a plastic implant to replace the piece of skull that had been removed. Doctors had previously removed the portion of skull to ease pressure on her brain, which swelled after she was shot in the head.
The two photos, one of the congresswoman and the other with her mother taken in front of the TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital, reveal a determined woman who still has a sparkle in her eye, friends said.
Those close to Giffords said her recovery has been nothing less than miraculous and although she has a long road ahead of her, the photos show the public proof of her progress.
“Wow! I saw her at the very end of March, and even then, Gabby was all there, her smile, her personality," posted Linda Lopez, Arizona State Senator and friend of Giffords.
"And she looks even better now. I think people are going to be very happy to see how great she looks. For someone who’s undergone what she’s endured, it’s really something. I feel relieved. She looks beautiful.”
Dr. Gerardo Francisco, the chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann, said Giffords has "great rehabilitation potential."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a recent interview that she had a “wonderful conversation” with Rep. Giffords on the telephone this week.
“She talked in full sentences and initiated the conversation instead of just responding. We cannot wait for her to come back here (to Washington),” Wasserman said.
Weis has known Giffords for more than a decade, since before she was first elected to the Legislature. He said he was impressed with Giffords’ ”remarkable progress” from her shooting in January.
“It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered in four and a half months,” photojournalist P.K. Weis said in a statement.
“I was excited to see her and to see her smile. She was glad to see me, was in a good mood, smiling and laughing and seemed to enjoy the experience. I certainly did, too.”
Giffords could be released from a rehabilitation hospital in Houston sometime this month, a top aide said Sunday.
After that she will probably be relocated in her home environment.
Her spokeswoman, Pia Carusone, has cautioned that Giffords still has a long way to go in her recovery.
Giffords was shot in the head in January when an assailant opened fire outside a grocery store during a meeting with constituents, killing six people and wounding 13 others.
The congresswoman and her staff held the first “Congress on Your Corner” at the conclusion of the first week of the 112th Congress.
Giffords said she wanted to hold the “Congress on Your Corner” to allow residents of Arizona’s 8th Congressional District to have one-on-one discussions about any issue, concern or problem involving the federal government.
The assassination attempt left Giffords in critical condition; the bullet went straight through her brain, but the hospital physicians were consistent and said her outlook was "optimistic" and that she was responding to commands from doctors.
A 9-year-old child was among the killed, and a U.S. Marshal said a federal judge was also fatally shot in the attack.
Giffords, 40, is a moderate Democrat who narrowly won re-election in November against a tea party candidate who sought to throw her from office over her support of the health care law.
She is married to astronaut Mark E. Kelly, who has piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. The two met in China in 2003 while they were serving on a committee there, and were married in January 2007.
Giffords is known in her southern Arizona district for her numerous public outreach meetings, which she acknowledged in an October interview that "it can sometimes be challenging."
"You know, the crazies on all sides, the people who come out, the planet earth people," she said, following an appearance with Adm. Mike Mullen.
For now, it has been reported that Jared Loughner, the man accused in the January shooting of Giffords and the others, has been declared incompetent to stand trial in the case.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns relied on the findings of two forensic mental-health professionals who evaluated Loughner at a federal prison complex in Missouri, according to media reports.
Judge Burns ordered that Loughner be tested again in four months. If, after treatment, he is then determined to be competent, the court proceedings can move forward.