November 15th, 2011
05:20 PM ET
The Empowered Patient is a regular feature from CNN Senior Medical News Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen that helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.
Looking back over the past nine months, Gabrielle Giffords’ neurosurgeon remembers several high points in his patient’s recovery – and the most recent one involves his suit and tie.
“I usually wear scrubs to my appointment with her, but one day I wore a suit instead, and she looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you have a suit on today. What’s with the necktie?’” remembers Dr. Dong Kim.
“She really gave me grief with great fluidity,” he says, laughing. “It was such a great moment that we could interact at that level and hang out and talk.”
Speech is Giffords’ biggest challenge right now, says Kim, director of the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. She has expressive aphasia, which means she knows what she wants to say but often has trouble finding the right words, whether she’s speaking or writing.
“We all have times where we can’t remember someone’s name, or we see something and we just can’t think of the word. Imagine what that’s like when it’s happening 80% of the time,” he says.
Kim says her speech has improved by “leaps and bounds” during the nearly nine months that Giffords has been his patient
“In the old days, if she was hungry, she would point to her tummy,” he says. “Now she can say ‘I’m hungry.’ She might not be able to say ‘Gosh, I really feel like having a hamburger right now,’ but she can definitely get the sentiment out.”
Kim says he expects her speech to improve for about an additional two to four years.
“She’s nowhere near a plateau right now,” he says.
He adds that he thinks she could return to Congress at some point in the future.
“I expect her to be speaking really well at some point, given the progress she’s made,” he says. “It may be different speech than what she had before [the gunshot wound] but it will be very effective speech.”
Physically, patients do tend to plateau at about a year. Giffords’ gunshot wound was on the left side of her brain, and Kim says her left arm and leg are fine. Her right leg is weak, and her right arm is weak, too, but less so than her leg.
Even with that weakness, she’s able to walk and get up from a chair on her own. Now she’s learning how to do everything with her left hand.
“Mobility is not going to be a big deficit for her,” he says.
About this blog
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.