WASHINGTON — Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gabrielle Giffords became fast friends when they met. Rising Democratic stars under 40 at the time, both Jewish, they gravitated to each other.
So it was only natural that Wasserman Schultz would join President Barack Obama on his visit to the Tucson hospital where Giffords is recovering.
Shortly after the president left the room, Giffords, with Wasserman Schultz at her side, opened an eye for the first time since Saturday's shooting. Then she raised her left arm as her husband asked her to give a thumbs up if she could see him.
"It felt like we were watching a miracle," Wasserman Schultz told reporters late Wednesday on an Air Force One flight back to Washington. "Other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband."
For both, it's a friendship forged in politics, but one that has grown far more personal.
Wasserman Schultz and her husband, Steve, met Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, before Giffords ever ran for Congress. The two women had been chosen for a legislative fellowship, traveling to several cities and spending time together.
When Giffords — then a state senator — ran for Congress in 2006, Wasserman Schultz was helping her party's recruitment efforts and visited with Giffords in Tucson.
The families attended Mark's last shuttle launch together, and they've vacationed together in New Hampshire. Giffords was in Miami last fall at a fundraiser Wasserman Schultz held for the Arizona congresswoman and several other colleagues.
"Our bond is strengthened because we share a profession and experiences," Wasserman Schultz said Thursday. "But it's tighter than that. There are precious few good friends."
Wasserman Schultz said the women "don't get a lot of social time" in Washington but try to catch up when they can, recently lunching together in the Senate dining room at New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's request. It was Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who stood by Giffords' hospital bed when her left eye fluttered open. Her right eye was damaged and is still bandaged.
Gillibrand told reporters the congresswomen were telling Giffords "how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength. And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better."
Giffords was gripping their hands, Gillibrand said, "and the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes."
Wasserman Schultz said she had just told Giffords, "Gabby, we fully expect you to be up and ready to go to come back up to New Hampshire this summer, and that's when she started to open her eye."
Wasserman Schultz described Giffords as not looking "anything like you would imagine someone with a gunshot wound to the head.''
"She looked angelic, I have to tell you. It was stunning. I mean, the strength that she has is — we were already aware of, but it clearly — it just resonates all the way through her."
Mark Kelly shares that strength, both women said, noting that he told them that ''Gabby is going to be walking. I told the doctor that Gabby would be walking in two weeks."
"She's totally enveloped by the love of her family, of her friends, of her constituents, and now the whole nation," Wasserman Schultz said. "And I think it's absolutely clear that all that energy has been felt by her."
Wasserman Schultz said Giffords' responses astounded the doctor in the room, who told them, "You don't understand, this is really, really significant progress."
Six people were killed and 14, including Giffords, were wounded in the shooting rampage on Saturday in a Tucson parking lot, where Giffords was meeting constituents. Giffords, who the authorities believe was the target of the attack, is the only one of the victims who remains listed in critical condition. Four others who are still at University Medical Center are listed in fair condition. Doctors said they had not upgraded Giffords's condition out of an abundance of caution.
Wasserman Schultz said Thursday that she and Gillibrand walked out of the hospital room, buoyed by the "power of girlfriends."
Neurosurgeon Michael Lemole told them outside the hospital room that he had long discounted reports that emotion "and friendship and family'' could make a medical difference.
And then he added, "I just witnessed the impact of friendship and what you guys, you did this here today," she said.
Lemole told reporters Thursday that he was at the hospital Wednesday "and I think it was a combination perhaps of the unexpected but familiar that really prompted her to open her eyes and look around. And that's important."
"A lot of medicine is outside our control and we're wise to acknowledge miracles," he said.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.