TAMPA — Rosa Cantu knows what the family of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is going through.
Like them, she's watching a loved one recover from a gunshot to the brain.
Like them, she's measuring progress in baby steps — the moving of an arm, a smile, a single spoken word.
And like them, she's hearing doctors paint a cautious picture about the future, while she and other family members hold onto hope for a full recovery.
Cantu's son, Richard, 31, was among six men who were shot early on Thanksgiving at a home in Ruskin when a man opened fire on them. Two of them — who were brothers and Richard Cantu's cousins — died. Authorities arrested an ice cream vendor they said had mistakenly thought he was getting revenge on those who previously had shot him.
A single gunshot entered the back of Cantu's brain and exited through the left side. His mother said that at first, doctors weren't sure whether her son would survive.
But in the eight weeks since the Nov. 25 shooting, the family, doctors and others involved in Cantu's care have seen him make significant — and surprising — progress, not unlike what Giffords has shown in the weeks following that shooting in Tucson, Ariz.
"He's come a long way," said Cantu's brother, Frankie, 28.
After receiving treatment at St. Joseph's Hospital, then Kindred long-term acute care hospital, Cantu was deemed fit enough to undergo an intensive three-hour-a-day rehabilitation program at University Community Hospital.
There, therapists have been working with Cantu on all phases of his recovery, helping him regain his ability to walk, talk and perform the tasks of daily living, such as eating on his own or opening a door.
He has two 90-minute sessions each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. His physical therapists guide him through exercises to help him regain strength and movement on his weak right side. To help his speech and cognitive ability, he spends time reading, repeating words and answering questions, said Dawn Etman, program manager in the UCH acute rehab unit.
It is a standardized program that Etman said she expects would be similar to the one Giffords will go through in Houston.
Meanwhile, doctors are monitoring the recovery of Cantu's brain. Dr. Roberto Dominguez, medical director of the rehabilitation unit, said the brain has "neuroplasticity," or an ability to rewire itself after an injury.
"The brain tends to heal by itself," said Dominguez, who described Cantu's brain injury as similar — but not the same — as Giffords'.
But at some point, that healing will plateau, and it's unknown whether Cantu will suffer permanent damage.
"Cognitive function may not come back 100 percent," he said.
Cantu, however, has a few things going for him, the doctor said. At 31, he's relatively young, and he's healthy, with no other medical issues.
Cantu's family is hopeful that he will one day return to a normal life, which before the shooting involved working at a Badcock furniture store in Ruskin and spending time with his two children, son R.J., 11, and daughter Rylee, 4.
"I know it's going to take some time," his mother said.
But relatives are encouraged by how much progress Cantu has made in his three weeks at the rehab unit. Cantu, who is single, will likely spend one more week there, and then either move to a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center or home to be cared for by his family.
On Friday, Cantu demonstrated some of his progress in front of his mother, brother and a few members of the media.
They watched as Cantu arrived at the sixth-floor rehabilitation area in a wheelchair, looking around and smiling. With help from therapist Kavita Jain, they saw Cantu walk to a small red Volkswagen stationed in the large rehab area, where he opened the front-passenger door and sat inside. When he got out, his mother and brother wept at the sight.
"I had never seen him walk until now," his brother Frankie said.
After that, Cantu quickly wheeled himself down the hall to his hospital room, where a meal of two hot dogs awaited him. Using his left hand, he squeezed a mustard packet on top of the hot dogs, then started to eat on his own.
In a quieter moment, Rosa Cantu rubbed her son's back while he sat in his wheelchair and told him she loved him.
"What do you say when I say "I love you?' " she asked him.
Smiling, he paused, then said clearly, "I love you."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330