For months, the public only knew of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' recovery through other people. Her astronaut husband. Her protective chief of staff. The doctors and specialists who have shepherded her through surgeries and grueling physical therapy.
But Monday night, Giffords herself offered the most convincing evidence yet of a remarkable rehabilitation, seven months after she was shot in the head by a would-be assassin who took six lives and injured 14 others.
The Arizona Democrat flew on a commercial jet from Houston to Washington, where she surprised her colleagues by showing up to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling — her first vote since the Jan. 8 shooting.
"In the beginning she could hardly get one word out," recalled Richard Carmona, a family friend and former surgeon general who is not treating Giffords but has kept tabs on her recovery. Now, "she can speak and put a sentence together. Sometimes, she's a little slower and a little more thoughtful."
Giffords is undergoing three types of rehabilitation, Carmona said: physical therapy to strengthen her right side, occupational therapy to help her with day-to-day tasks such as using a knife and fork, and cognitive therapy including reading and word games.
On Sunday, Giffords asked her husband, Mark Kelly, to call Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a close friend, to find out if the decision on the debt ceiling would be so close that her vote could be pivotal, Wasserman Schultz said. Though the vote wasn't as close as was expected at the time, Giffords decided to come anyway because she felt so strongly about the issue.
The fact that Giffords clearly was acknowledging other people, responding to their body language and reacting with her own facial expressions indicates that she had retained higher-thinking abilities, according to Darryl Kaelin, chief of the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Louisville.
Giffords, a moderate-conservative Democrat, missed 678 votes, resulting in some complaints that she ought to step down. But her staff has been aggressive in its constituent service operation, resolving more than 1,000 cases.
Contributions have been flowing into Giffords' coffers, which had $787,949 in cash on hand at the end of June, according to federal election reports.
But Giffords' staff said her appearance was not a sign that she intended to seek re-election to a fourth term.
"Going to Washington to cast a vote doesn't change that she still has work to do on her recovery," said her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin.
She decided not to join her husband when he and the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour went to the White House to meet with the president Tuesday. "She decided to go home because she didn't want to be late for therapy tomorrow," said Pia Carusone, her chief of staff.
Information from the New York Times and Arizona Republic was used in this report.