Crowds cheered Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she left a Tucson hospital where she stunned doctors with her recovery two weeks after being shot in the head in an assassination bid.
The 40-year-old Democrat was moved in an ambulance to a plane bound for Houston, Texas, for rehabilitation yesterday.
A doctor with her said Ms Giffords heard them, smiled, and tears welled up in her eyes.
Children sat on their parents’ shoulders as the motorcade passed. Many waved and others carried signs wishing Ms Giffords, known as Gabby, well.
“It was very emotional and very special,” said Dr Randall Friese.
A gunman shot the congresswoman and 18 other people on January 8 as she met constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. Six people died in the rampage, including Arizona’s top judge John Roll.
The suspected gunman, Jared Loughner, 22, is being held in federal custody. His motive is not known.
After her 930-mile trip, Ms Giffords was in an intensive care unit at Texas Medical Centre last night, where a new team of doctors planned to start her therapy immediately.
After several days of evaluation, she will be sent to the centre’s rehabilitation hospital, TIRR Memorial Hermann.
Ms Giffords had “great rehabilitation potential” said Dr Gerardo Francisco, chief medical officer of Memorial Hermann.
“She will keep us busy, and we will keep her busy as well,” he said.
The first thing is to determine the extent of her injuries and the impact on her abilities to move and communicate. She has not spoken yet and it is unknown whether she will suffer permanent damage.
Since the attack, Ms Giffords has made progress nearly every day, with characteristically cautious surgeons calling her improvement remarkable.
Tracy Culbert, a nurse who accompanied Ms Giffords and her husband, Houston-based astronaut Mark Kelly, on the flight to Texas, said the politician was taken with a ring on her finger. The nurse took it off and Ms Giffords put it on her own hand.
“She was taking it off my hand and I asked if she wanted to see it,” Ms Culbert said. “She’s a very gentle person and her personality is coming out with her touches, the way she touches us, the way she looks at us, and I am very lucky to know her.”
Doctors say Ms Giffords will stay in the intensive care unit for now because she has a drain to remove fluid build-up in her brain. She was beginning rehab immediately, with a session scheduled for last night.
Because part of her skull was removed during surgery, a specially-made helmet was made to protect her brain. Dr Friese said Ms Giffords’ husband asked them to make another one – with the Arizona flag on it.
“We immediately got one the next day,” Dr Friese said.
While Ms Giffords is moving her arms and legs, it is uncertain how much strength she has on her right side; the bullet passed through the left side of her brain, which controls the right side of the body.
She had some weakness or paralysis on her right side, said Dr Dong Kim, neurosurgery chief at University of Texas Health. He said she could move her leg and may be able to support herself, but “may not be able to move it when she wants”.
Ms Giffords will stay at Memorial Hermann until she no longer needs 24-hour medical care – the average is one to two months. Then she can get up to five hours a day of physical and other rehab therapies as an outpatient.