Gabrielle Giffords' staff stays close in Houston during recovery
The updates come to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from her bedside in Houston, news from Capitol Hill, Libya and Arizona relayed through a staff member with a laptop computer.
It's not the norm for Pia Carusone, Giffords' chief of staff, but as her boss recovers from a gunshot wound to the head, undergoing a rigorous daily rehabilitation routine, the halls at TIRR Memorial Hermann have become as much of a base for operations as locations in Arizona and Washington, D.C.
Carusone, who shuttles between Giffords' offices, now spends much of her time in Giffords' room at TIRR. She coordinates via her computer and BlackBerry with staff in Tucson and keeps Giffords' parents and husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, up-to-date on the staff's work.
Standing outside a gym at the rehab facility, Carusone said her job has changed "in every way possible." But the staff's mission, she said, has remained the same: serving Giffords and the people of southeastern Arizona.
That hasn't been easy, staff members say, especially after their colleague, Gabe Zimmerman, was killed in the same Jan. 8 shooting that left Giffords and two of her staffers wounded. In all, 19 people were shot in the rampage outside a Tucson supermarket, six fatally.
But the pain and memory of that day has served to fuel the staff into action, aggressively pursuing Giffords' prior agenda as much as they can while she recovers. Among their accomplishments has been the relaying of questions into a congressional hearing on Giffords' behalf.
"Right after the shooting, it was hard," said Giffords' spokesman in Tucson, C.J. Karamargin. "But it was almost a good hard because it forced us to focus on the job that Gabby wants us to do, and there is, I think, almost a helpful healing aspect to that."
Increase in calls
The 22-member staff has worked to organize two Tucson events for constituents, including one about solar energy.
They also have received a sharp increase in calls for assistance from constituents, including one from a mother of a woman who had struggled to leave Cairo, Egypt, during the recent uprisings there. The staff was able to arrange for the woman, who had difficulty walking, to be picked up and put on a plane out of Egypt.
"They understand they're still working for the people of Arizona, and they're doing a good job," said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who is a good friend of Giffords.
The staff has had calls for help from constituents ranging from Social Security questions to concerns about fraudulent loans. Since Jan. 8, they have seen a 23 percent jump in new cases each week, Karamargin said. The increase is likely a result of Giffords' more prominent presence in the media, he said.
Coordinating with staff from Houston has left Carusone jumping from city to city.
She was in Washington last week, is in Houston now and likely will make a trip to Tucson next month. She has become a familiar face to staff at TIRR, where she is often on the phone in hallways or using her computer in conference rooms, a shift from the familiar setting of Capitol Hill.
In Washington last week, Carusone worked with Smith to ask questions on Giffords' behalf at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. Giffords' staff advised Smith on issues of concern that the congresswoman had expressed in the past.
Smith then asked Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the military's efforts to increase energy efficiency, which could reduce the need for refueling trucks and personnel to be sent into dangerous areas, he said.
Smith also requested a more detailed response to the inquiry be sent to Giffords' office.
"They're making sure that the issues that Gabby's been working on and that their district cares about continue to be addressed," Smith said.
Staffs of other members of Congress have had to respond similarly as those representatives experienced health problems that left them unable to participate directly in congressional business. Former Sens. Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy were both sidelined with illnesses during their terms.
The adjustment to Giffords' recovery has remained emotional for her friends in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., regularly meets with Giffords, but she felt her absence this week when she was sending one of her regular e-mails organizing an outing with friends.
"I usually click on her name first, and I know she's not here, so I was not able to do that," Wasserman Schultz said. "We're all just rooting for her to get better and come back."
Giffords' recovery, friends say, has been rapid and provided great optimism for her return to Congress.
As her staff has continued advocating on her behalf, Smith, Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are planning a fundraiser for Giffords' next re-election campaign in 2012. There also is widespread speculation that Giffords could make a run for the U.S. Senate if she recovers as her friends and family hope.
"She's coming back, and we know she's coming back, and we want to make sure she's ready," Smith said.
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