HOUSTON — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Wednesday left intensive care for the first time since she was shot in the head in Arizona more than two weeks ago, the latest big step in the long road to recovery.
With her progress moving at "lightning speed," doctors said they had the Arizona lawmaker moved to TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital, where she immediately began therapy that could last several months.
Doctors said she will have a valve inserted into her breathing tube to help her talk.
Asked whether the congresswoman is able to speak, neurosurgeon Dong Kim said, "We can say that her speech function, along with everything else, is improving," but he declined to elaborate.
Giffords, 40, had been in intensive care since her arrival Friday from Tucson, Ariz., where she was shot Jan. 8 while meeting with constituents. The gunman killed six people and injured 13 others outside a supermarket.
Doctors had said she would remain in the ICU until they were able to remove a tube that had been placed into her head to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid. A backup of the fluid can cause pressure and swelling in the brain.
Kim said the catheter was removed Monday after a scan showed there was no longer a dangerous buildup of fluid.
The three-term Democratic lawmaker's ability to swallow safely could mean she won't need a feeding tube much longer, said Dr. Imoigele Aisiku, director of neurocritical care at Memorial Hermann.
Giffords began physical, occupational and speech therapy just hours after she was transferred, under heavy guard, in an ambulance from the Texas Medical Center ICU to the rehab center.
"It's a busy afternoon already, and I anticipate it will be more so in the coming days," Dr. Gerard Francisco, the head of her rehabilitation team, said at a news conference.
A breathing tube was placed into Giffords' neck after she was shot. Aisiku said that although she can breathe independently and swallow safely, the tube cannot be immediately removed because of the length of time it has been in place. Instead, doctors will lessen her dependence on it, a process that has already begun, until it can be safely removed.