Public may soon see first photo of Gabby Giffords, but her return to Congress remains uncertain

Holly Bailey

The public might soon get its first glimpse of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords since she was critically wounded in a deadly Tucson shooting in January. But it remains unclear when—or if—the injured Democratic lawmaker will return to Congress.

In perhaps the most detailed assessment of Giffords' condition released since the January shooting, Pia Carusone, the congresswoman's chief of staff, tells the Arizona Republic that her boss's communication skills are slowly improving. But six months later, it still remains unclear how much brain damage Giffords suffered when she was shot at point blank range while attending a congressional event in her district--or how much she will ultimately recover.

"Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing. Add it all together, and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs," Carusone says. "But, when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had the trouble."

Asked for a "blunt assessment" of Giffords condition, Carusone, replied, "She's living. She's alive. But if she were to plateau today, and this was as far as she gets, it would not be nearly the quality of life she had before."

For the first time, her staff is acknowledging Giffords, who remains in a Houston rehabilitation hospital, might not return to Congress. Asked about her boss's re-election efforts, Carusone says that the staff is looking to a May 2012 deadline. That's when petitions are due for candidates looking to get on next year's election ballot.

"That's a firm timetable. Short of that, we'd love to know today what her life will be, what her quality of life will be, which will determine whether she'll be able to run for office and all sorts of other things involving her life. But we just don't know yet," she said. "We're about halfway through the process that is the most important time for recovery. Patients recover for the rest of their lives, but it's the first 12 to 14 months that you make the biggest jumps … In the doctors' minds, it's not even close to when you begin to make the final prognosis for the quality of her life."

Asked when the public might see Gifffords, Carusone tells the Republic the Democratic lawmaker may be ready to release a photo—but hinted she's not yet ready to engage with the public.

"I think that we're getting close to the time when Gabby will feel comfortable releasing a photo," she said. "Then, we go from there."

(Photo of Giffords: Giffords office via AP)