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Congresswoman May Owe Life to Luck and 'Battlefield Lessons'

Dr. Peter Rhee answers media questions at University Medical Center in Tuscon, Arizona
Dr. Peter Rhee answers media questions at University Medical Center in Tuscon, Arizona

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This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

On Saturday in Tucson, Arizona, a gunman opened fire on a small crowd meeting outdoors with a congresswoman. Six people were killed and fourteen were wounded, including the representative, Gabrielle Giffords.

The bullet traveled along the left side of her brain as it went in one side of her head and came out the other.

Doctor Leigh Vinocur is a nationally known expert in emergency medicine. She says the path that the bullet took was lucky for the forty-year-old congresswoman.

LEIGH VINOCUR: "And then when the neurosurgeon described that it appeared the nerves to her eye were OK, I just think it could have been worse. You know, if it's any lower, it hits your respiratory center and you die immediately. You worry about motor function, and it appears that she's moving her extremities. We don’t know how her speech will be, because the temporal lobe does affect speech. She certainly is following commands.”

On Tuesday doctors said Representative Giffords was breathing without the aid of a machine. But she remained in critical condition.

Doctor Vinocur praised the college intern who gave the congresswoman first aid. Daniel Hernandez had trained in high school as a nurse's assistant.

Emergency workers treat a victim of the shooting at a Tucson shopping center
Emergency workers treat a victim of the shooting at a Tucson shopping center

But Doctor Vinocur says people have to be extra careful about putting pressure on bleeding head wounds.

LEIGH VINOCUR: “So you can put pressure on the scalp, which does bleed a lot, to sort of stem that bleeding. But you want to be careful to make sure you’re not pushing brain tissue back in through the hole, you're not pushing fragments of bone. Or if there were metal bullet fragments that were left in the entrance or exit wound, you don’t want to push those back into the brain."

Doctor Peter Rhee, trauma chief at the University Medical Center in Tucson, says he expects Representative Giffords to survive. She has been following simple commands, like moving her toes, squeezing a hand and giving the thumbs-up sign. But no one knows yet how well she might recover.

Doctors have temporarily removed about half of her skull to ease pressure.

Doctor Rhee operated on the congresswoman and also treated other victims of the shooting attack. He says his work as a Navy surgeon in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prepared him well.

In fact, emergency medicine specialist Leigh Vinocur says that specialty grew out of military medicine dating back to World War One.

LEIGH VINOCUR: "The lessons that we learn on the battlefield are the things that have translated. And we have made such great strides, even within this last war, of saving people."

Doctor Vinocur teaches at the University of Maryland medical school and speaks for the American College of Emergency Medicine.

The young suspect charged in the shooting had been acting strangely. Last year he was suspended from a community college because of his behavior. But he was legally able to buy the handgun used in the shooting.

And that’s the VOA Special English Health Report, written by Caty Weaver. I'm Christopher Cruise.