- Associated Press - Thursday, February 17, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is able to laugh at jokes, recognize visitors and even offer a poignant response when asked recently by her husband how she was doing.

“Better,” Ms. Giffords said, in one of the first words she uttered since being shot in the head Jan. 8.

Family friend Tilman Fertitta described the encounters to the Associated Press after spending time with her family and friends and recently visiting Ms. Giffords at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, where she is undergoing intensive rehabilitation.

Ms. Giffords has been showing strong signs of progress each day as she recovers from her wounds, and her husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, who is an astronaut, spends time at her bedside. Capt. Kelly has been splitting his days between the hospital and training for the next space shuttle launch in April.

She is in therapy from morning until night, Mr. Fertitta said, and sees her husband every day.

“There’s lots of excitement as she continues to speak more and improve,” he added. “She’s in a great mood and working hard.”

“She recognizes everybody,” Mr. Fertitta added.

Capt. Kelly has said Ms. Giffords will 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, Fla., to watch her husband head the mission.

“The doctors are encouraged because she’s improved much faster than expected,” Mr. Fertitta said.

Mr. Fertitta is chairman, president and CEO of Landry’s Inc., the company that owns the Golden Nugget casinos and several restaurant chains, including one bearing the company’s name. He met Ms. Giffords through Capt. Kelly and has known the astronaut for about eight years. Mr. Fertitta attended their wedding in Tucson, and when they found themselves in crisis, he provided the jet that carried Ms. Giffords from the hospital in Tucson to the rehabilitation center in Houston.

Now, the 51-year-old Mr. Fertitta, a Houston native, is helping the family during their extended stay in his hometown, visiting Ms. Giffords whenever possible.

“She’s in a very good mood, an extremely good mood,” he said.

Accounts earlier this week showed Ms. Giffords has been able to mouth the words to such songs as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” while responding to several basic verbal commands.

Jared Lee Loughner is charged in federal court in the assassination attempt against Ms. Giffords that killed six people. Authorities described him as a mentally unstable college dropout who became obsessed with carrying out violence against Ms. Giffords for reasons that aren’t clear.

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