(Updated) The survival and recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson on Jan. 8, has been described as near miraculous. Countless media reports have described the Arizona congresswoman’s extraordinary improvements, which have occurred seemingly daily, and reported the sanguine evaluations of her team of doctors. On June 12, Giffords’ office released the first photos of a smiling congresswoman, confirming that she’s doing well.
The photos were taken May 17 at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, the day after the launch of the shuttle Endeavour, which Giffords’ husband piloted, and the day before she had her cranioplasty.
But the questions remain: what is the likelihood that she will recover fully? What is the likelihood that she will return to Congress?
(More on TIME.com: Video: Giffords’ Brain Injury: Steps to Recovery)
In a revealing article published Thursday, June 9, Rep. Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, spoke with the Arizona Republic’s E.J. Montini and answered some tough questions.
Carusone said Giffords has trouble finding words and struggles to communicate, problems that cause her “absolute frustration.”
“She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she’s still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing. Add it all together, and she’s able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But, when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that’s where she’s had the trouble,” Carusone told the Republic.
Carusone says the congresswoman is nowhere near returning to public office. Most of her decisions are made together with her husband, family and staff. It’s still unclear whether she will be able to run for re-election — but petitions are due in May 2012, the “only firm timetable” to which Giffords’ staff hews when considering whether she’ll come back to work.
(More on TIME.com: Photos: Messages for the Tucson Victims)
Experts have said they expect Giffords to be released in the coming weeks from the inpatient rehab setting at TIRR Memorial Hermann, where she’s been since January, the AP reported. Afterward, she’ll undergo months of intensive outpatient care, which may include training for a return to work.
The congresswoman is about halfway through the most important stage of her recovery, Carusone said. “Patients recover for the rest of their lives, but it’s the first 12 to 14 months that you make the biggest jumps,” Carusone told the Republic. “In the doctors’ minds, it’s not even close to when you begin to make the final prognosis for the quality of her life.”
Despite Giffords’ incredible progress and her doctors’ buoyant comments to the media, Carusone’s assessment makes it clear that she is far from whole. When asked by Montini to describe Giffords’ status, she said:
“She’s living. She’s alive. But if she were to plateau today, and this was as far as she gets, it would not be nearly the quality of life she had before. There’s no comparison. All that we can hope for is that she won’t plateau today and that she’ll keep going and that when she does plateau, it will be at a place far away from here.”
(More on TIME.com: The Shuttle Didn’t Fly, But Giffords’ Trip Was Still a Victory)
To read Carusone’s full interview with the Arizona Republic, click here.
Update [June 12]: This post has been updated with the news of the release of the first photos of Rep. Giffords to be released since the January shooting in Tucson.