January 10th, 2011
06:25 AM ET

Gupta: What helped Giffords survive brain shot

CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a practicing trauma neurosurgeon and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition on a ventilator after being shot through the back of the left side of her head, yet doctors are “cautiously optimistic” about her survival. That she is alive at all is surprising to many people, but people survive these types of injuries more often than you may think.

While every patient and injury is different, on average – around 2/3 of patients with a gunshot wound (GSW) to the head don’t live long enough to make it to the hospital. Of the third that do make it, only 50% of those patients survive longer than 30 days. And of course, those numbers say nothing of long-term neurological function in the survivors.

So far, according to her doctors, Giffords is likely to be in the small minority of patients who will beat the odds. So, what placed those odds in her favor?

First off, she received very quick care, and was in the operating room within 38 minutes after arriving at the hospital. Her overall health and youth also provide some benefit. The injury was a “through and through” injury, meaning there was both an entry and exit wound. That’s significant because some of the energy of the bullet was dissipated into space, as opposed to all within her cranial cavity.

Neurosurgeons will want to know if the bullet passed across the midline of the brain. If it does, there is a much poorer likelihood of survival. In Giffords' case, it did not. Other positive factors: Her blood pressure didn't drop as a result of the bleeding, and the oxygen supply in her body was maintained, according to her doctors that I interviewed.

Finally, the fact Giffords was “following commands” even before she had an operation was a very positive sign.

To follow commands signifies a higher level of brain function than simple reflexive movement. It indicates that she was able to hear the command. She was able to process the meaning of that command, and finally, she was able to execute the command. I spoke to Dr. Randall Friese, the trauma surgeon who examined Giffords when she arrived at the hospital. He told me she was clearly able to understand him, and squeezed his hand when asked to do so. And, after the operation, Giffords was still able to follow commands.

During an operation like this, doctors want to control bleeding, remove fragments of bone that have penetrated the brain, and remove any dead brain tissue along the trajectory of the bullet.

Also, her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, removed additional bone on the left side of her head, as I explain in the video above.  That is called a craniectomy, and is done to prevent the catastrophic consequences of brain swelling, which is a big and real concern over the next several days. Think of it like this: Unlike organs in others parts of your body, if the brain swells, it has no place to expand - as it is confined by the rigid skull. Because Lemole removed portions of the skull, he provided extra room for the brain to swell. Incidentally, the bone that’s removed is saved, and put back in the head during a future operation.

In medicine and surgery, doctors are reluctant to quote statistics, because every patient is a true individual –that includes Gabrielle Giffords. And, no doubt, Giffords is not “out of the woods” yet. But, “cautiously optimistic” sounds pretty good after an injury as devastating as this one.

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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.