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Giffords will be flown to Houston hospital Friday

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Congresswoman will receive treatment at rehabilitation hospital
  • Several people will fly with her from Tucson

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- In less than two weeks, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a bullet through her brain, has seemingly whizzed by milestones.

First, it was the little things.

She opened her eyes. She squeezed her husband's hands. She was able to breathe on her own.

In recent days, the Arizona congresswoman flipped through an iPad, stood with assistance and gave husband Mark Kelly a neck massage.

Thursday, she got a beautiful reward for all the positive steps she and the University Medical Center team have accomplished.

Taken outside for physical therapy, Giffords got perhaps her last look for awhile of the majestic mountains around Tucson before she flies Friday morning to Houston for further treatment.

"To be so responsive as she is now and processing as well as she has, has been very good for her," trauma surgeon Peter Rhee told CNN's John King.

Rhee, who will travel with Giffords for the medical handoff at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, spoke of the challenges ahead.

Giffords will need to be able to express the thoughts she's processing, the doctor said. Getting full use of her right leg and arm are also important. She is not yet able to walk or stand independently.

Accompanied by a VFW motorcycle escort, Giffords will be transported around 9:15 a.m. by ambulance to nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, according to the congresswoman's office.

Giffords rode with Veterans of Foreign Wars riders in May 2009, when they escorted the remains of Civil War-era veterans from Tucson to Sierra Vista.

The Air Force will fly Giffords on a Challenger aircraft to Houston's William P. Hobby Airport, arriving around 1:15 p.m, the office said. A helicopter will take her to Memorial-Hermann.

In addition to Kelly and Rhee, accompanying Giffords on the flight from Tucson will be:

-- Tracy Culbert, one of her nurses in University Medical Center's intensive care unit

-- Gloria Giffords, her mother

-- Pia Carusone, her chief of staff

-- C.J. Karamargin, her communications director.

Asked about a sense of optimism at UMC, Rhee said it's been a "team effort" to aid Giffords' recovery.

"We can't undo the tragedy on [January] 8th, but I think the community here and the extended community in the country has really taken the opportunity to rally behind" the congresswoman, Rhee told CNN.

Six people died and 13 were wounded January 8 when a suspect, identified as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire at a Tucson shopping center during a Giffords meet-and-greet event. She was shot at close range.

Kelly on Thursday said Giffords' family looked at several different rehabilitation facilities and liked TIRR Memorial Hermann, part of the Texas Medical Center, for several reasons.

Among them: The medical team there specializes in penetrating head injuries like the one Giffords has suffered, and it is relatively close to Tucson.

The move also will allow Kelly, a NASA astronaut, to resume his duties in Houston, Rhee said. He can't predict how Giffords will do in the long term, he said.

Still, Kelly and surgeons have been strongly encouraged by Giffords' progress.

She will continue to receive intense physical and speech therapy at Memorial Hermann, with a team led by Dr. John Holcomb, a retired Army colonel.

Kelly told reporters Thursday he believes his wife has tried to speak, although she is prevented from doing so by a breathing tube in her neck, and believes she is aware of her surroundings, saying he can look in her eyes and tell.

She will smile at him and pat him on the face -- something she did before the shooting and that she usually only does when he is around, he said.

"Every time I interact with her, there's something quite inspiring," he said.

Outside the Tucson hospital, a collection of flowers, signs and other effects continues to grow.

"We have seen too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm us," one heart-shaped sign read. "Keep shining Gabby."

CNN's Paul Vercammen contributed to this report