US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has returned home to her astronaut husband, leaving behind a Houston hospital where she began to rebuild her life after a gunman shot her in the head five months ago.
Ms Giffords’ release marks a new phase in her recovery. She struggles to speak and walk, and will need daily, intensive therapy.
Whether she will ever recover enough to resume her congressional duties is still unknown.
But doctors at TIRR Memorial Hermann, her husband Mark Kelly and experts who have been observing Ms Giffords’ recovery emphasise that going home is a key milestone and could help stimulate her progress.
“Anyone who knows Gabby knows that she loves being outside,” Mr Kelly said in a statement released by the hospital.
“Living and working in a rehab facility for five months straight has been especially challenging for her.”
Ms Giffords will still go to the hospital each day where she will participate in speech, music, physical and occupational therapy with the same team that has treated her since she arrived in Houston in late January.
Now, however, at the end of each day “she will be with her family”, Mr Kelly said.
The congresswoman will move to Mr Kelly’s home in League City, a suburb near the Johnson Space Centre, where she will have 24-hour help from a home care assistant.
The 41-year-old was shot in the left side of the brain, the part that controls speech and communication, on January 8 while meeting with constituents in Tucson.
Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the attack, including the politician and members of her staff.
Her release from the hospital was met with excitement.
“When I went home from the hospital after surgery, I was so nervous, but boy it’s wonderful to be home in your own surroundings, to be able to have things on your own schedule,” said Ron Barber, who also survived the shooting.
“I’m sure it’ll be uplifting and healing for her, too,” he said.
Jordan Grafman, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory at the Kessler Foundation Research Centre in New Jersey said being around family often motivates patients.
He warned, however, that the congresswoman is far from healed and will have many months, years and even a lifetime of recovery ahead of her.
“Often, you can do many things for yourself but not everything, that’s not unusual after a severe traumatic brain injury,” Mr Grafman said, explaining why she would need professional help at home.
“It’s not unusual to be released before complete independence and you may never achieve complete independence.”
Ms Giffords’ Chief of Staff Pia Carusone recently gave the first clear indication of how slowly Ms Giffords is recovering.
After months of optimistic, rosy reports from Ms Giffords’ doctors, staff and family, Ms Carusone said that while the congresswoman can speak, she struggles to express complex thoughts and sentences.
“Her words are back more and more now, but she’s still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing,” Ms Carusone told the Arizona Republic.
“Add it all together, and she’s able to express the basics of what she wants or needs,” Ms Carusone said. “But when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that’s where she’s had the trouble.”
Better news came on Sunday, when the first pictures of Ms Giffords since the shooting were posted on her Facebook page. Although wearing glasses and sporting shorter, darker hair, there were few indications she had been injured, let alone shot in the forehead.
One image showed her smiling broadly and looking straight at the camera. In another, more candid shot, she is grinning alongside her mother. In both, her trademark smile is largely unchanged.