January 14th, 2011
07:38 AM ET
At University Medical Center in Tucson, four patients remain in the hospital. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is now the only one in critical condition.
Outside, there is a constantly busy makeshift memorial, even in the middle of the night. Television and newspaper reporters are buzzing around, trying to satisfy the appetite of a curious public. There is so much attention on these four patients, that it was somewhat surprising that they hardly know it. Most of them have cut themselves off and barely watched any news reports, or even visited with other victims down the hall.
I was allowed to meet with the patients at UMC, as they decided to speak for the very first time. It became clear within moments that as much as I wanted to record their stories, they needed – they wanted to talk even more.
Ron Barber was the first patient I met. Kindly, softspoken, he welcomed me in with a smile and introduced me to his wife, Nancy. For 40 years, Ron had worked as an advocate for those with developmental disabilities, and he had retired before coming to work as a staff member for Congresswoman Giffords.
It was jarring when he started to describe the horrible scene that unfolded. He heard the noise and saw Giffords take a bullet in the head. As he spun around toward the shooter, he also was shot, first in the face and then in the leg.
He slumped to the ground and found himself lying right next to Giffords, who had her back to him. As he struggled to make sense of it all, suddenly their colleague, Gabe Zimmerman, fell face-first right between them. “He was so still,” he told me. “I knew he was dead.”
Nearly delirious, Barber started reaching for his Blackberry so he could “call Gabby’s parents,” he said, oblivious to the fact that he was bleeding to death from a torn femoral artery in his leg. Suddenly a woman named Anna – Anna Ballis he would learn later - was there using her bare hands to stop the blood loss, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw 20-year-old Daniel Hernandez cradling Gifford’s head.
“Heroes amidst the horror,” I said softly. He nodded and seemed a little choked up. “Anna came to visit me today,” he said with a genuine smile.
Captain Mark Kelly was in Houston when Pia Carusone, Gifford’s chief of staff, called him and told him he needed to get to Tucson. A Navy pilot and astronaut, Captain Kelly had access to a fast plane and arrived at the hospital just as his wife emerged from surgery.
He met with Dr. Michael Lemole and Dr. Peter Rhee and learned for the first time the details of what had happened to his wife. Rhee was very optimistic that Giffords would survive, while Lemole had an obligation to take a more “long-term view of the future,” as he described it to me. “I do think about her neurological function, and it is just too early to tell what that will be,” he added.
“Did she know the president of the United States visited her last night?” I asked Captain Kelly. He paused and said, “Yes, I think she did know… though, I think she was trying to figure out what he was doing there.”
And, there was the eye opening. Captain Kelly doesn’t strike me as a man who would use the term “miracle” off the cuff. Yet, it was exactly how he described the moment his wife opened her eyes in the presence of old friends. She had reached out with her left hand and sort of stroked his face, he said. “At first I thought she was trying to strangle me,” he joked. And then she opened her eyes. “It was miraculous.”
“We are wise to acknowledge miracles,” Lemole said Thursday. I asked him about it later, and he smiled. “Some people don’t believe that, and may even ridicule it.”
“I won't,” I said.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.