- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords can fly to Florida this week to watch her astronaut husband rocket into space as commander of the space shuttle Endeavour, but she will return shortly after the launch to resume rehabilitation, her doctors in Houston confirmed Monday.

The doctors at TIRR Memorial Hermann said Giffords is “medically able” to travel and that they view the trip to Cape Canaveral as part of her rehabilitation from a gunshot wound to the head.

“Medically, there is no reason she could not travel safely to Florida to participate in this incredible event with her husband,” said Dr. Dong Kim, director of the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann.

The last time Giffords flew was when she was transported on a private jet from the hospital in Tucson, Ariz., that treated her immediately after the Jan. 8 shooting to Houston, where she has been undergoing intensive rehabilitation. But this time, her flight is not an ambulance transport, Kim added.

“She is medically able and well enough to travel without additional risks,” said Kim, who also serves as professor and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School.

ABC and CBS News initially reported on Sunday that doctors had given Giffords the green light to attend the launch.

Being there for the Endeavour’s final flight _ commanded by Giffords’ husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly _ was a goal for the congresswoman and her family.

“Attending the launch is an opportune time for her to continue her therapy progression,” said Dr. Gerard Francisco, lead physician of the brain injury rehabilitation team and chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann. Francisco also is chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UTHealth in Houston.

“We routinely allow patients outside visits as part of their rehabilitation,” he said in a statement. “She has made remarkable progress in her rehabilitation, and we saw no reason why she could not travel safely to Florida.”

Still, doctors said Giffords will return to Houston to resume the rehabilitation “shortly after the launch” and emphasized that “provisions have been made with NASA regarding Giffords’ care while she is in Florida.”

The launch is scheduled for 3:47 p.m. Friday.

“This is great news. Attending the launch is something the congresswoman has been working toward and something that’s important for her, her family and her staff,” Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. “It’s another significant milestone in her recovery.”

President Barack Obama and the first family also are scheduled to watch the launch, although it’s unclear if they will watch it with Giffords.

Families view launches at Kennedy Space Center from a restricted area, and there are no plans for Giffords to make a public appearance.

NASA for the past few weeks has had launch management officials scouting locations and working with Giffords’ staff on “whatever particular needs she would require,” Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Beutel said. He referred to the congresswoman’s staff for details on her requirements and schedule.

But, he said, this is different from NASA’s normal accommodations for astronauts’ families, which usually watch lift-offs from the launch control center’s roof _ an area accessible only by stairs, Beutel said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of situation where this level of injury occurred so close to a launch,” Beutel said Monday.

Giffords went to Kelly’s last launch in 2008, when he commanded the space shuttle Discovery. The two married in 2007.

Giffords was shot in the head while at a meet-and-greet with constituents in the parking lot of a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center. A gunman killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords.

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the attack and is in custody.

Giffords has not been seen publicly since the shooting and has spent the past three months relearning how to speak, walk and take care of herself. She has been singing _ as part of musical therapy _ asking for her favorite foods and visiting with family, friends and her rabbi.

Kelly returned to training for the shuttle launch in February after taking time off to be at his wife’s hospital bedside.


Associated Press writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report from Phoenix and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed from Washington.

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