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The encouraging news continued when Gillibrand and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., stood in the hospital room Wednesday, talking, joking and touching their friend.

“She was rubbing our hands and gripping our hands so … we knew she could hear and understand what we were saying and she moved her leg, and so we knew she was responding,” Gillibrand said. “And the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes.”

Giffords‘ husband, Mark Kelly, realized the significance of the moment. “Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes,” he said, according to Gillibrand.

Said Schultz: “It felt like we were watching a miracle.”

So how did Giffords survive the gunshot wound? The path of the bullet, quick and quality medical care, and a stroke of luck meant the difference between life and death, say her doctors and brain experts.

Doctors think the bullet pierced the front of Giffords‘ head and exited the back, slicing the left side of the brain, which controls speech abilities and muscles on the right side of the body.

Had the bullet damaged both sides of the brain or struck the brain stem, which connects to the spinal cord, the outcome would likely be worse _ extensive permanent damage, vegetative state or death.

“So far, she’s passed with flying colors of each stage” of her recovery, said neurologist Dr. Marc Nuwer of the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not involved in the congresswoman’s treatment.

Most gunshot victims are not that fortunate. Several years ago, a Tucson police officer was shot in the head during a chase. His heart was beating when he was rushed to University Medical Center, but doctors couldn’t control the bleeding in the brain and he died, Rhee said.

When Giffords arrived at the hospital, doctors first checked to make sure she didn’t have any other injuries. They took a brain scan and wheeled her to the operating room in a swift 38 minutes.

The same attack in the desert many miles away from a trauma center may have led to a different ending.

“She’s just lucky in so many ways,” said UCLA’s Nuwer. “The breaks have been in her favor. That’s not to say they’ll continue to be in her favor.”

It’s too early to tell the extent of damage Giffords suffered, but experts say it’s rare for people with gunshot wounds to the head to regain all of their abilities. Damage to the left side of the brain can result in memory loss, difficult reading and hand-eye coordination problems. Giffords‘ doctors have not been able to determine how well she can speak since she still has a breathing tube.

“Her full-time job now for the next year is working on her recovery and rebuilding her life around her disability whatever it may be,” said Dr. Stephan Mayer, professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, who has no role in Giffords‘ care.