- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - Scribbled on the helmet protecting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords‘ injured head was a simple reminder: 5/17/11, the date doctors said she could take it off for the last time.

Now, a day after successful surgery to repair her skull, the helmet adorned with the Arizona state flag that she has worn since she was shot in the head in January is finally gone.

She is awake, communicating and doing bedside therapy. And her new look has earned her a nickname.

“I started calling her Gorgeous Gabby today,” said Dr. Dong Kim, the neurosurgeon who performed the operation. “She hasn’t looked in the mirror yet, but as soon as she does she’ll be very pleased.”

Even shaving her head to prevent infection hasn’t harmed her appearance, Kim said.

“I think it looks quite cute if you ask me, and hair will grow back,” he added.

Giffords‘ astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, is in space and couldn’t see her. But he closely followed the intricate, 3 1/2-hour surgery, talking to his brother and mother-in-law by Internet phone on the International Space Station and emailing doctors.

“She’s doing really, really well, as good as possibly could be expected,” Kelly said in interview from space.

Kelly said he’s “looking forward” to her release from TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston, though no one, including her doctors, is saying when that will be.

Still, the operation is considered a major milestone in her recovery, and doctors said they worked according to their original plan, performing the surgery at an optimal time and not rearranging it to fit Kelly’s launch schedule.

Dr. Gerard Francisco, head of Giffords‘ rehabilitation team at TIRR, said the surgery will also allow doctors to “upgrade” her therapy, possibly improving her rate of recovery.

Just removing the helmet will help.

Experts say it can be cumbersome during therapy. Losing the helmet can have a positive psychological impact, boosting the patient’s confidence from looking healthy again.

Giffords‘ chief of staff Pia Carusone said “5/17/11” was scrawled on the helmet as a reminder of the last day she would have to don the headgear.

“She hates the helmet,” Carusone said, noting that Giffords was excited on Tuesday, the day before the surgery. “She’s been looking forward to this for a while.”

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