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Docs say Giffords making great strides

TUCSON, Ariz. - Gabrielle Giffords has made a "major leap forward" in her recovery progress, opening both eyes and moving her legs and arms, her doctors said yesterday.

The Arizona congresswoman remains in critical condition after being shot in the head Saturday. Few people who take a bullet to the brain - just 10 percent - survive such a devastating wound.

With her closest friends from Congress holding her hand Wednesday evening, Giffords opened her unbandaged left eye and tried to focus on loved ones for the first time.

"This is a major leap forward. This is a major milestone for her, and we're hoping that she crosses through many more," said her neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Lemole.

Doctors have also helped Giffords sit up and dangle her legs from her bed. She's able to open her right eye, even though it's bandaged.

The next milestone will be removing her breathing tube, and perhaps have her sit in a chair today, said Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma chief at University Medical Center, who has treated soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doctors want to make sure Giffords doesn't regress and are watching for pneumonia and blood clots.

In another development Thursday, a man walking his dog found a black bag holding ammunition that authorities believe was discarded by the gunman accused of trying to assassinate Giffords.

Chief Rick Kastigar with the Pima County Sheriff's Office said an 18-year-old found the bag Thursday morning in a neighborhood near where the suspect lives. Authorities have said the suspect, Jared Loughner, and his father got into a confrontation over the bag at their home in the hours before the shooting.

Giffords' improvement is a far cry from last week, when a shocked nation braced for the worst for the 40-year-old Arizona congresswoman. Several news outlets erroneously declared her dead soon after the shooting rampage.

After her surgery, Dr. Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general and family friend who looked at Giffords' brain scans, gave a bleak outlook.

"With guarded optimism, I hope she will survive, but this is a very devastating wound," he said.

But as the days ticked by, doctors shared signs of improvement. By Sunday, Lemole said he was "cautiously optimistic" about her survival.

Doctors were encouraged Monday that there was no further brain swelling, and Giffords could raise two fingers of her left hand and even flashed a thumbs-up.

The following day, doctors said Giffords was breathing on her own but still connected to a respirator as a precaution. She was also moving both arms. Doctors gave their most confident prognosis yet: She will survive.

"She has no right to look this good, and she does," Lemole said.

So how did Giffords survive the gunshot wound? The path of the bullet, quick and quality medical care, and a stroke of luck meant the difference between life and death, say her doctors and brain experts.

Doctors think the bullet pierced the front of Giffords' head and exited the back, slicing the left side of the brain, which controls speech abilities and muscles on the right side of the body.

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