U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is scheduled to be flown from Tucson to Houston today to begin rehabilitation for the gunshot wound she suffered to her brain Jan. 8.

Members of the public are welcome to come wish her well by lining the Tucson route her ambulance will take to the flight this morning, as long as they stay safely off the roadway, Giffords' staff says.

"People want to line the route. People are calling. They're saying, 'Where can we stand?' " said her communications director, C.J. Karamargin. "Gabby would love the show of support."

Giffords, 40, faces a long rehabilitation that could take months, doctors say.

She is scheduled to leave UMC at about 9:15 a.m. Escorted by Tucson police, she will travel by ambulance to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base for the flight to Houston.

A group of VFW motorcycle riders has volunteered to escort the ambulance to the base as well, her staff said. Giffords rode with the group in May 2009, when it escorted the remains of Civil War-era veterans from Tucson to Sierra Vista.

"As Gabby moves into the next phase of her recovery, you know, she's going to need to continue to be strong and she will really appreciate the support of this community," her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, said Thursday. "This is her home, the place she loves, the people she represents."

A Challenger aircraft will take Giffords to Houston. It's expected to land at William P. Hobby Airport about 1:15 p.m. Houston time, and she'll then be taken by helicopter to a trauma hospital.

Kelly, an astronaut who works in Houston, will travel with Giffords, as will her mother, Gloria Giffords; UMC trauma surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee; UMC nurse Tracy Culbert; Karamargin; and the congresswoman's chief of staff, Pia Carusone.

When she gets to Houston, Giffords will first be evaluated at a top-level trauma center affiliated with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and then transferred to a rehabilitation facility, TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Top rehab hospital

The rehabilitation will focus on improving her functioning and then move into working on daily living skills, doctors said.

Giffords, who was shot clear through the left side of her brain, will temporarily wear a helmet to protect the soft part of her brain that was exposed when doctors removed part of her skull Jan. 8 to allow for swelling. They expect to replace that portion of skull in a month or two.

"We considered rehab facilities in New York, in Arizona, in Chicago, in New Jersey, in Washington, D.C., and also in Houston," Kelly said Thursday. "So it took a while to decide where to send her and there were many factors that went into that. Some of those other places could certainly provide her excellent care and we did consider them all."

He said TIRR Memorial Hermann has an excellent track record of working with patients who suffered penetrating bullet wounds to the head.

The facility is also close to Tucson, he said.

"What really is a critical factor in this decision is that it's going to let me be there by her side as much as possible every single day. And I don't know how long this whole process is going to take," he said.

Giffords' medical team in Houston will include Dr. John Holcomb, a trauma surgeon and retired U.S. Army colonel. Holcomb specializes in traumatic brain injuries and in 2008 was honored by the American College of Surgery for his contributions to caring for wounded soldiers.

TIRR Memorial Hermann was founded in 1959 and has been named to the "Best Hospitals" list by U.S. News and World Report Magazine for 21 years, every year the list has been published.

Therapy starts at UMC

Giffords has already begun intensive therapy at her bedside at University Medical Center, where she has been hospitalized since the shooting.

The congresswoman is not speaking, but she has been moving her lips. Her husband said he believes she is attempting to mouth words.

She currently has a tracheal tube in her throat that prevents her from speaking. But since the left side of the brain controls speech, doctors aren't certain how the gunshot wound may have affected her ability to talk. The left side of the brain also controls right-side strength and sensation.

The bullet went in through the front of her head, just above her left eye, and exited through the back, doctors say. The bullet's trajectory stayed in the left hemisphere and did not cross through the brain's geometric center.

Kelly told reporters Thursday that his wife continues to make progress. Both her eyes are unbandaged, she's blinking and she's able to focus. He said Giffords has smiled at him, too.

"Every time I interact with her there's something quite inspiring," he said. "I can just look in her eyes and tell - she's well aware of who's around her. Just you know, very aware of the situation."

The medical staff at UMC took Giffords out on a deck to get some sunlight Thursday. They had previously wheeled her to a window to look at the Santa Catalina Mountains.

While Giffords' prognosis is unclear, doctors say she's made a remarkable recovery thus far and there are indications that she is thinking - she's able to scroll through her iPad and look at pictures, is standing with assistance, and is making gestures toward her husband, such as gently patting his face.

"These are all fantastic advancements forward. They do indicate higher cognitive function," neurosurgeon Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr. said. "But I do want to caution everyone that she has a long road ahead of her. … It's not uncommon for people to initially improve and then plateau and then improve again. So everyone has to gear their expectations toward what she's willing to show for us as opposed to what we want."

Thank you for support

Kelly thanked the Tucson community for its support and promised that one of his wife's first activities will be writing "thank-you notes."

"I'm extremely hopeful for a full recovery," he said. "She is a fighter like nobody else I know."

He said he'd like his wife to be able to come back to UMC in two months' time and walk through the front doors.

"I don't think we're ever going to fully understand the why and the how and you know, the reason for what happened on the eighth of January," Kelly said. "Emotionally this has been a challenge for all of us.

"But what this has done is it's certainly shown me and I think not only our country, but the entire world, what Tucson is all about. It showed them a different side of Tucson and I think all Americans are very proud of what they've seen.

"And I know my wife, Gabrielle, would be very proud of how this community has responded to this tragic situation."

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.