They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
So for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who doesn’t find words easily after being shot clear through the head in January, two photos released to Arizona media Saturday are the first direct communication she’s had with her constituents.
The photos were taken on May 17. It was a Tuesday morning, the day after her husband’s space shuttle launch and just hours before she was to have surgery to install a new artificial skull implant.
They were taken by former Tucson Citizen photo editor P.K. Weis, who said they were not posed shots, but caught the congresswoman interacting with her doctors, her mother by her side. They have not been retouched, the office said.
There are changes.
Her trademark blond locks are brown now, and shorter.
The scar from her tracheotomy is visible, as is a thin scar on her forehead.
The bullet entered near her left eye, which appears slightly narrower.
She is wearing glasses rather than contacts.
But in all, the photos show someone who would be readily recognizable to Tucsonans as the woman who has served them in the state Legislature and then in Congress.
Giffords’ staff has said all along that the woman they’ve seen fighting to get better these past five months looks like their boss — that when visitors come to see her, there is almost palpable relief that her countenance and the sound of her voice remain so unchanged despite the trauma she sustained.
But until now, the glimpses have been few, her privacy zealously guarded.
The family released a photo early on of just her hand, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, gripping it in the hospital.
A photo posted on her Facebook page showed the couple on an outdoor deck at University Medical Center on Jan. 20, but she could not be seen: Only the back of her hospital bed, Mark looking down at her, was visible.
Later came a photo on the flight to her Houston rehabilitation facility, but only of the back of her stretcher, with her mother tenderly soothing her.
Most recently was a grainy video, shot from a substantial distance, of her haltingly — but on her own power — walking up the stairs of the airplane en route to Kelly’s shuttle launch.
Spokesman C.J. Karamargin said there’s “intense interest” in Giffords’ appearance, to the point that there’s concern it could create a feeding frenzy.
Just the other day, he said, he was leaving the gym and ran into an acquaintance. The first question: What’s she look like?
Staff members, he said, get that all the time.
In part, Giffords and her family decided to release the photos, ironically, to protect her privacy.
She’s readying to start outpatient therapy at the hospital, which will mean sightings of her in public. There have been rumors of a “bounty” for photos of the congresswoman, so Karamargin said releasing the photos now should call off the paparazzi.
“These pictures capture well the Gabby that we know and love,” he said.
The photos will be posted on Giffords’ Facebook page at 11 a.m. today, and at that same time will be posted on the Star’s website, at www.azstarnet.com
Karamargin, who said he hopes viewers don’t try to infer any medical update from the photos, said what they clearly show is Giffords’ upbeat mood after watching her husband’s successful flight. “We saw a definite boost in her spirit and strength after she went to Florida,” he said, adding that while the hospital is providing excellent care, just getting out of there for a while was positive.
Weis hadn’t seen Giffords since he’d photographed her under contract for her 2010 campaign. When he came into the room, he said, she yelled out, “P.K.! P.K!”
“I really had to compose myself a little bit after that,” he recounted. “It was exciting to see her, so excited and enthusiastic and so alive. She was everything I’d hoped for.”
The photos were shot prior to the surgery to accommodate Weis’ schedule, said Karamargin. And there are some slight changes since, as a result.
Her hair is a little shorter post-surgery. Although Karamargin said that, to his untrained eye, there’s little residual swelling, there still may be some slight changes to the shape of her head on the left side given the new implant.
Karamargin was with Giffords last week to celebrate her 41st birthday. He said that, when he walked into her room, she was walking on her own. He said there’s a new ruddiness to her complexion from being outside with regularity.
He reported other snapshots of normalcy. She was able to celebrate the occasion briefly at a birthday party outside the hospital with family and a few folks from Arizona. She said, “41. Ugh. Awful” — a sentiment many have shared at the march of time. And Thursday found Karamargin at a table with Giffords, her mother and her nurse, trying to come up with the words to “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb. “Only the nurse really knew them,” he said, “but Gabby chimed right in.”
Staff members were shown the pictures earlier this week — the same day her chief of staff broke from the consistently optimistic updates on Giffords’ progress to give a more sobering account of her condition. Pia Carusone indicated there’s a firm timetable of May 2012 to decide Giffords’ political future, adding that the staff doesn’t yet know whether she will be able to run for office.
Karamargin said Giffords’ staff has focused more on the images than those words. “People were buoyant when they saw this picture,” he said. Their reaction: “That’s our boss.”
In Giffords’ absence, her staff has stressed that work continues throughout her recovery. The office is still doing constituent work. Allies in Congress continue to push her causes — most recently, Democratic Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who is furthering her push to bump up the military’s use of renewable energy.
While she has said repeatedly that she wants to come home to Tucson, Karamargin said she hasn’t been repeating those same sentiments about Washington. But he cautions against inferring too much from that, saying this might be the longest stretch of time away from Tucson she’s had since she was in college. “For four years, this was a woman who wanted to come home every weekend, and most of the time, did.”
But Karamargin isn’t able to say when some of the other milestones will come. There’s no firm date yet on her exodus from the hospital. No date for her return to Tucson. No date for her first public words.
“It’s frustrating for us. It’s frustrating for everyone that there’s no way to predict the course that this is going to take,” Karamargin said. “The one thing we’ve learned is the importance of being patient.
“When you consider that the congresswoman was injured while performing her job, we know and we believe that the public knows that she deserves the necessary time to get better.”
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at email@example.com or 573-4243.