Ask Captain Mark Kelly about the experience of finding your life turned upside down in an instant, about how it feels to go from being like something out of a television show—an astronaut married to a member of Congress—to being quite literally helpless, knowing that your old life may never return, and he pauses, shakes his head.
"She was clinging," says Captain Mark Kelly of his wife Rep Gabrielle Giffords about the hours and days after she was shot in the head in January of 2011. "She clung, hanging off the brink of the abyss."
Then she was pulled back. And if it was the surgical team that pulled Gabby Giffords from the very edge of that abyss, it is the physical therapists (PTs), the occupational therapists, and speech pathologists who have been helping her find her way home ever since. Thanks in no small measure to Giffords' relentless determination and her husband's devotion, rehabilitation professionals are bringing her closer every day.
"It really is amazing what you guys do," Kelly told a packed room of PTs during the opening session of NEXT in a keynote address that was part inspirational message, part comedy routine, and part storytelling session. Throughout the stories of his youth as an emergency medical technician, (mis)adventures in Desert Storm, his space shuttle trips on the Endeavour, and finally as a companion helping a loved one recover from a traumatic brain injury, Kelly emphasized the qualities PTs try to foster in themselves and the patients and clients every day—bravery, persistence, patience, and a willingness to ask hard questions.
In his address, Kelly described how physical therapy began almost immediately after Giffords emerged from a coma following brain surgery to repair damage from a gunshot wound to her forehead, fired from a 9mm gun about 3 feet from her head. "About 10 days later, she was out of her coma, and physical therapy started," he said. "They started what they called 'dangling her' from the side of the bed."
Giffords was shot and initially treated in Tucson, Arizona, but was moved to TIRR Memorial Herman hospital in Houston, Texas, for much of her rehabilitation. It was there, Kelly said, that he and his wife began to understand the impact PTs can have.
"The physical therapists keep her focused on progress," Kelly told PT in Motion News. "And you can see the effect it has. If she doesn't do it regularly, she actually starts regressing a little bit." Now Giffords participates in physical therapy 2 to 3 times a week.
"The power of the human spirit is an incredible thing," Kelly said during his presentation. And though he attributes his wife's success to her tenacity, he told the audience that the rehabilitation professionals were the catalysts for continued progress. "It was the therapists, the physical therapists, the occupational therapists, the speech therapists, that pushed her to take that extra step," he said.
In his address, Kelly described how Giffords, in one of her final acts as a US representative, pushed herself to travel from Houston to Washington to cast a crucial vote to raise the debt ceiling fewer than 8 months after the shooting. The moment was an inspirational one that made headlines across the country, and provided Giffords with the satisfaction of knowing she had fulfilled her public duty. "Thanks to folks like you, she was able to walk into that building one last time to have her voice heard," Kelly said.
Before he delivered his address, Kelly told PT in Motion News that he and his wife remain hopeful. "I believe that she can improve," he said, then added, "but it's hard work, physical therapy."
And while they continue to work, they wait for science to deliver… something. "We're hoping for technology, something that can help. A leap," he said.
Kelly's address, however, reflected no wistfulness—it was all about courage and putting up a good fight. Those qualities even extended to the NEXT conference, for which Giffords prepared a video recording. Because she suffers from aphasia, Kelly explained, finding and getting out the right words can still be a struggle for his wife, so they crafted and rehearsed—and fought the aphasia—until Giffords could deliver a few remarks.
And though it was a brief message, the words were bound to resonate with an audience of PTs. "Get involved," she said. "Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best."
Kelly headlined a lively program that boasted a talk show style including a live band, opening monologue, interviews, and a Top 10 list presented by PT students from Wingate University.
For more details on the NEXT Conference and Exposition and to keep up with events, go to www.apta.org/NEXT/.