HOUSTON (AP) — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is laughing at jokes and eating sushi and even spoke the word "better" when asked recently by her husband how she was doing. Her doctor describes her as a hard worker who diligently completes her therapy each day.
Giffords has been going through her rehabilitation in a room adorned with pictures of her family and notes of encouragement as she recovers from a bullet wound to the head suffered during a political event last month. She is several weeks into a process that medical experts say will be a lengthy and grueling effort.
Her doctor said patients with injuries similar to Giffords have good and bad days. Sometimes, they will make progress and improve for several days and then encounter a day when their muscles are not as strong as expected or they are tired.
"It happens quite frequently. We don't even panic anymore, because that happens," said Dr. Gerard Francisco, who heads the team of specialists treating Giffords.
Those who have spent time with Giffords said she has reached several impressive milestones. She is able to mouth the words to songs such as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." She is eating meals on a consistent basis, whether it's hospital food or sushi or matzo ball soup brought to her bedside by her rabbi.
Her top aide has said Giffords knows she was shot, but doesn't know about the deaths and injuries to those around her.
"There's lots of excitement as she continues to speak more and improve," said family friend Tilman Fertitta, who has spent time with her family and friends and visited the congresswoman. "She's in a great mood and working hard."
Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, has been splitting his days between the hospital and training for his space shuttle launch in April. Kelly has said he expects Giffords to be well enough to attend the shuttle launch, but doctors said it was still too early to say whether she would be in good enough shape to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch her husband head the mission.
She is in therapy from morning until night, Fertitta said, and sees Kelly every day.
A typical day for a brain injury patient at the hospital will include physical, occupational, music and speech therapy, Francisco said, but can also carry over to actual activities. For example, if in occupational therapy the patient is relearning to feed themselves, doctors may use breakfast as a time to incorporate that back into the daily routine.
Francisco said the hospital often uses music therapy to treat brain injury patients. He said doctors have found the brain's right hemisphere is especially sensitive to music, and in some cases, can cross over to parts of the left hemisphere. The therapist will often choose music the patient likes or can relate to in the therapy.
Francisco declined to give specifics about Giffords' treatment and progress, but called her a "hard worker" — a term he uses to describe a patient who engages in therapy.
Dr. Neil Jasey, who specializes in treating traumatic brain injury at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation said the new glimpses of progress are "extremely encouraging (because of) the fact that it's happening this quickly."
Giffords seems to understand social context if she's laughing at jokes, and has some insight into her condition if she can realize she is now better, Jasey said.
Jared Loughner is charged in federal court in the assassination attempt against Giffords that killed six people. Authorities described him as a mentally unstable college dropout who became obsessed with carrying out violence against Giffords for reasons that aren't clear.
AP science writer Malcolm Ritter contributed to this story from New York.