But, as she stood by Giffords' side Wednesday afternoon and squeezed Giffords' hand, Gillibrand noticed that the Arizona congresswoman's hand was surprisingly warm. Bandages covered Giffords' head and one eye, her breathing was regulated by a machine and her limbs were strapped down. But her cheeks were rosy as always, Gillibrand recalled in an interview Thursday.
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"She looked vibrant and alive and well and determined to recover," Gillibrand said.
Suddenly, Giffords' unbandaged eye began to flutter. Her husband, Mark Kelly, sprang forward and cried: "Open your eyes, Gabby! Open your eyes!"
And a few moments later, "she opened her eye," Gillibrand said. "I could tell she was using every ounce of her energy and her focus and her effort to begin to try to look at us and to focus on us."
As Giffords struggled, Kelly leaned his head toward hers and said softly: "Give us a thumbs up, if you can see us," Gillibrand recalled.
"You could feel the unbelievable capacity for love and affection coming from him to her and her to him. And then, all of a sudden, she literally lifted her whole arm up. Not just her hand, not just her thumb, her whole arm."
Everyone in the room - Gillibrand, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Giffords' parents, Spencer and Gloria Giffords, and Kelly, a NASA astronaut - burst into tears, Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand saw Giffords shortly after President Barack Obama had stopped by for a brief visit. The visits by the president and the members of Congress were among the first Giffords had received since the shooting rampage Saturday that left six dead and 14 wounded outside a Tucson grocery store. Authorities say Giffords was the target of an assassination attempt by a lone suspect, Jared Loughner, who is in custody.
"It was just a miracle," Gillibrand said of Giffords' unlikely survival and her apparent steps toward recovery.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Wasserman Schultz had been friends with Giffords since she was elected to the House in 2006. Among the few women in their 30s and 40s in the House, they went on double dates with their husbands and counseled each other on Washington etiquette.
At the beginning of the 10- to 15-minute visit Wednesday, Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz told Giffords about how she had to get better soon so they could get a pizza in Washington and take a vacation in New Hampshire. The first positive signs came then, as Giffords squeezed their hands back and moved her legs, Gillibrand recalled.
Later, at the bedside, Giffords' family expressed confidence that she would make a strong recovery. Her mother, Gloria, told Gillibrand: "I believe in Gabby."