Gabby Giffords and the Resilience of the Brain

Posted on January 18, 2011 by Marian Salzman

Like the rest of the world, I watched with horror as events unfolded in Tucson, resulting in the death of six people and critically injuring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As talk swirled of right-wing conspiracies and out-of-control anger, people of all backgrounds prayed for Giffords and wondered how she could possibly survive after a bullet had entered her brain and come out the other side.

Seeing updates on her story in real time unites us even further in our collective hope for the politician, who is now breathing without the aid of a respirator and was upgraded from critical to serious condition after a successful tracheotomy. Her doctors—quickly becoming cranial rock stars—aren’t sure what impairments she’ll sustain, but her progress has certainly been encouraging.

It’s hard to believe it’s been only a little more than a week since the shooting. I can’t help but be amazed at her prognosis and her response to doctors and family. We all watch this together, but the story holds personal interest to me because of my brain surgery to remove a tumor almost four years ago. I’m still incredulous at the resilience of that incredible, complex nugget atop our heads. And I’m a believer again in miracles and medicine—as I walk down the street in Frankfurt this week, a recollection of my post-operative visit to Germany a blur of three winters past, or when I see the radiant, sharp ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff asking questions about the congresswoman’s possibilities.

Woodruff is, of course, another high-profile survivor of brain trauma. His recovery from a brain injury he suffered while covering the war in Iraq was grounded on a few interesting ideas. As Bob’s wife, Lee, my dear friend, explained to one interviewer: “Doctors told me that Bob, despite the severity of his injuries, had better chances to recover than other victims, because of the reserve of neurons and connections he had built thanks to an intellectually stimulating and diverse life, including living in China for several years and traveling to dozens of countries, having worked as a lawyer and as a journalist, and his overall curiosity and desire to learn. It seems that more and more research shows how people who are mentally active throughout their lives, either through their jobs, or doing puzzles like soduku are, of course up to a point, better prepared to deal with problems such as [traumatic brain injury].

“Still, recovery is a long process. Bob had six months of structured cognitive therapy focused on speech and languages areas, because that was the part of his brain that had been most damaged. The therapist identified the main tasks for him to work on in a challenging yet familiar way, usually asking Bob, for example, to read The New York Times, then try to remember what he had read, and write a short essay on his thoughts and impressions. Since then he has, in a sense, used his work in the documentary ‘To Iraq and Back’ and other projects at ABC as his informal, but very effective, way to keep improving. I am amazed to watch in real time how, even today, he gets better and better. To give you an example of his motivation to recover: He recently took on Chinese lessons to see if working on that also helped him.”

Giffords, who, according to Wikipedia, is “an avid reader,” most likely also has an intellectually curious bent that will surely help her in the months to come. How will brain surgery affect her career as a busy congresswoman? I can offer a glimpse into that after making many life changes in the wake of my craniotomy.

Instead of doing 20 things at once, my new normal is more like 10. Many among you struggle daily to keep up with information overload, respond to e-mails and IMs in real time, and manage your work and home life—and still have time to do a Pilates class every morning. Now imagine trying to do all that when your brain is defiantly telling you it’s not possible, and maybe you, like me, would start listening.

I see so many signs that point to all of us paying more attention to our brains in 2011—from a surge in interest about increasing NFL concussions and the possible hazards of cell-phone usage on the brain to soldiers returning home with traumatic brain injuries, and now to our making a furtive attempt to understand why such a tragic event occurred in Arizona. All very heady stuff.

Photo Credit: creativecommons/searchnetmedia

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