Perhaps no greater motivation is needed for getting in shape and watching your diet than listening to health experts talk about U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery from a bullet wound to her brain.
Being fit — and Giffords has long been a fitness buff — vastly improves the chances of recovering from illness or injury, neurosurgeon Gail Rosseau says. “It’s an adage of all surgical specialties: The healthier you are going into the surgery, the better you will be coming out,” says Rosseau, chief of surgery at the Neurologic and Orthopedic Institute of Chicago.
Rosseau says the emergency care and medical teams have played the leading roles in Giffords’ progress so far, but Giffords’ strength will be key during her rehab at the Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. She was transferred there Friday after she was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson.
“I’m sure her overall conditioning will help her,” says Rosseau, who is not involved in Giffords’ care. “That’s why we make sure the whole health of a patient is under good control. You want to get someone in mental and physical shape before they have surgery.”
What discourages health experts when working with patients?
“Obesity, being a smoker, having a sedentary lifestyle” make recovery more difficult, Rosseau says. “She clearly lives a healthy lifestyle.
Giffords, 40, hikes when she gets home to Tucson and also loves biking, in-line skating and yoga, says Mark Kimble, a spokesman in her Tucson office. “She also likes swimming in the members’ pool in the Rayburn House Office Building,” he says, and he adds that her diet is loaded with fruits and vegetables. “Very little junk food.”
Cardiovascular fitness is key to a healthy heart and mind, experts say. Her schedule as a congresswoman is so demanding, Kimble says, that “she doesn’t get to work out as often as she’d like to. Nonetheless, she’s in phenomenal shape.”
And that could lead to a phenomenal rehab, says physical therapist Karen McCulloch.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about her brain injuries,” says McCulloch, director of physical therapy education at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is not involved in Giffords’ care but says she is watching every step of the congresswoman’s progress from afar. “The fact that she is a motivated, driven, bright, active person could be assets. If she has really good endurance, that can be helpful.”
McCulloch says time will tell.
“There are some brain injuries that are so catastrophic, you might not be able to recover from them. The brain can learn to compensate, though.”
Giffords is in the early stages of physical therapy. Fluid in her brain has delayed her move from intensive care to rehab. But she can stand when assisted, and her Tucson physicians told the Associated Press she mouthed words and will continue to progress in what has been a “miraculous recovery.” The Houston hospital says her condition improves daily.
Rosseau’s advice: Follow Giffords’ lead and make healthy choices “as a way of giving yourself an extra insurance policy, an insurance policy that can help you move a step toward a better outcome.”