Editor’s note: Dr. Tara Narula is a CNN medical correspondent. She is a board-certified cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine in Hofstra/Northwell.
Watch “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” at 9 p.m. ET/PT November 20 on CNN.
Doctors and public health experts often refer to a bullet as a vector, just as a virus is the vector for transmitting infectious diseases. Both leave a path of destruction as they travel. Families must bury their loved ones and survivors can live with chronic wounds that reveal the damage even a bullet can cause.
But some survivors are able to raise their voices for change to keep others from suffering and to shine a light that guides others out of the darkness.
Gabby Giffords is one of those voices that has spoken its own way. In 2011, the trajectory of a 9 millimeter bullet through the left side of the brain changed the course of his life. The former congresswoman was one of 13 people injured in a shooting in the parking lot of an Arizona supermarket. Six people were killed.
It is clear now that she is resilience personified. One step at a time, one word at a time, one day at a time, Gabby fought to persevere, and her courage in the face of tragedy is nothing short of remarkable. She always seemed to defy the odds, and she does so with grace and her signature sweet smile. She became a leading gun safety advocate through her own organization, Giffords. But it also raises awareness of aphasia, a disorder that results from damage to parts of the brain responsible for producing or processing language.
Obama shares what he learned from Gabby Giffords
I met Gabby before the debut of the CNN documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” a detailed depiction of the inner fire that helped her heal and drives her to help others do the same. The day we met, she gave me a big hug outside the small room where I watched her and four others during their speech therapy session with Dr. Fabiane Hirsch Kruse – Fabi, as they call it.
Inside the therapy room, Gabby sat around a circular table with Christina, Brian, Matt and Andy, each of them working on exercises designed to help them with their aphasia. Fabi asked them to share when they had their first brain injury, their level of physical activity and a series of other questions designed to improve their language skills. Often the answers were single words or the wrong words, or they took several minutes. Sometimes the answers did not come at all.
Aphasia can be isolating and often misinterpreted. Friends of Aphasia – the nonprofit founded by Gabby and Fabi – teaches that loss of words does not mean loss of intelligence.
“It’s just because of the brain injury,” Fabi told me. “It has nothing to do with their ability to think through their thoughts, to know who they are, to be the wonderful people that they are.”
Gabby said she liked to talk; she just can’t get the words out.
“I’m Gabby,” she said, her voice bright and energetic. “I’m so calm now.”
But while the therapy room might have been filled with frustration, I instead saw a room filled with vulnerability, humor, and camaraderie. When asked what she liked best about coming to the aphasia group, one member, Christina, replied “hope, hope, hope”.
As Gabby said in the documentary, “Words used to come easy. Today I have trouble speaking, but I haven’t lost my voice.
Treatment for aphasia is tailored to the individual, and recovery can be different for everyone. But one of the features of treatment is work with a speech therapist; Gabby and Fabi have worked together since 2013.
For Gabby, therapy is “a lot of homework”. She always asks for more. Gabby and Fabi work hard to hone Gabby’s ability to deliver more public speeches and interviews.
Part of what kept Gabby going was also the music. It’s been an integral part of her life since she was young, when she sang in musicals and played the French horn, and now it’s an important part of her therapy. For people with aphasia, anything that is practiced – a prayer, a poem or a song – can be an accessible way to express themselves.
I asked Gabby if she had a favorite song, and within seconds she was singing, loud and clear, the verses of one of my favorite songs.
“Almost heaven, West Virginia…country roads, take me home where I belong,” she sang as Fabi danced to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
As a cardiologist, I see many patients who have traumatic life-altering events like a heart attack or stroke, and I often urge them not to look too far ahead. Instead, take one small step at a time and find your way back to yourself and a sense of peace.
What people don’t realize, Fabi said, is that Gabby is a daredevil and absolutely fearless. Moving forward is the only way she knows – before on horseback, motorcycle and bicycle, and now on a trike. She has what Fabi describes as a “beautiful relationship” with her best friend and husband, Senator Mark Kelly, who has been by her side supporting her every day. She doesn’t let anything get her down, Fabi said, and they laugh every session.
‘His charisma still shines through’: Congressman on Giffords
“For me, it’s been very important to move forward, not look back,” Gabby told me. “I hope others will be inspired to keep moving forward no matter what.”
In the film, one of Gabby’s colleagues says that many who meet her are “gabbified”, and now I understand exactly what that means. She has a spark and warmth that radiates from somewhere deep within her and a sense of calm and playfulness in her demeanor.
During our interview, as the cameras were about to start rolling, she leaned over and fixed my hair, and it was obvious she was a natural keeper. His compassion shines through in his eyes, which speak a lot about what his voice sometimes can’t.
Gabby told me she feels optimistic, but she knows she has a long way to go. For the documentary, they had asked how long Gabby thought she and Fabi would work together. Gabby told them “rocking chairs”: an expression meaning in a long time, when they’re sitting on the porch in old, worn rocking chairs.
At the end of our interview, Gabby and I took a brief walk past her house. As she held my hand, I could feel both her fragility and her strength. Gabby Giffords’ road hasn’t been easy, but she hasn’t backed down as she continues to advance her own recovery and advocate for both gun violence and aphasia awareness.
I asked, is his fight about getting the old Gabby back or finding a new one?
Gabby replied that it was the new one – “better, stronger, tougher”.
She walks tall, proud and determined to make the most of life, both superhuman and down to earth.