Last night, on the plane back to Washington with the President, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) described in more detail what they saw when, as President Obama said last night, “Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.”Gillibrand: Well, we were very excited that we were even going to have the chance of getting to visit her hospital room. We didn’t know when we first came whether we had that opportunity. And so when we did have the chance, we were so excited to get to see her. And when we came in the room, the doctor was there, her parents were there, Mark is there, and the Speaker — Speaker Pelosi and Debbie and I went in.
And we just were so excited, so we were telling her how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength. And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better. And we were holding her hand and she was responding to our hand-holding. She was rubbing our hands and gripping our hands so we could — she could really — we knew she could hear and understand what we were saying and she moved her leg, and so we knew she was responding. And the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes literally.
And then you have to recognize, her eyes hadn’t opened — we didn’t know that — and so she started to struggle. And one of her eyes is covered with a bandage because it was damaged in the gunfire. So her eye is flickering. And Mark sees this and gets extremely excited. And we didn’t — I didn’t know what that meant. And so he said, Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes. And he’s really urging her forward. And the doctor is like perking up and everyone is coming around the bed. And she’s struggling and she’s struggling and it’s a good — we couldn’t figure it out, maybe 30 seconds, where she’s really trying to get her eyes open, like doing this, this, this.
And then she finally opens her eyes and you could she was like desperately trying to focus and it took enormous strength from her. And Mark could just — can’t believe it. I mean, he’s so happy. And we’re crying because we’re witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us.
And so Mark says, he says — he said, Gabby, if you can see me, give us the thumbs up, give us the thumbs up. And so we’re waiting and we’re waiting and —
Wasserman Schultz: And she didn’t at first.
Gillibrand: And we just thought, okay — and you could watch — when you’re watching her eyes, she’s really trying to focus. Like you could see she hadn’t opened her eyes in days. And then instead of giving the thumbs up, she literally raises her whole arm like this — like this. It was unbelievable. And then she reaches out and starts grabbing Mark and is touching him and starts to nearly choke him — she was clearly trying to hug him.
And so like — she was — it was such a moment. And we were just in tears of joy watching this and beyond ourselves, honestly. And then Mark said, you know, touch my ring, touch my ring. And she touches his ring and then she grabs his whole watch and wrist. And then the doctor was just so excited. He said, you don’t understand, this is amazing, what’s she’s doing right now, and beyond our greatest hopes.
And so then they decided we had to go because it was a lot — (laughter) — of excitement for her and it was — we just told her how proud we were and how much we loved her and said we’d visit soon.
Wasserman Schultz: It was just — really, it felt like a miracle. It felt like we were watching a miracle. And Kirsten is totally right — we just both wanted so badly to be there for her as her friends. We wanted to do — we wanted to be there for Mark and for her parents. And just the strength that you could see just flowing out of her to get — it was like she was trying to will her eyes open. It was just — I mean, it felt —
Gillibrand: Debbie, you should say about — when you had your children — that it was like the only experience that’s similar is when you have a child.
Wasserman Schultz: Exactly. The only way I could describe the feeling that we had, that I had, was other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally your — one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband —
Gillibrand: And to tell us she’s there. Like she was — it was — you imagine this when you watch a movie, but it’s like she wanted to tell us, I’m here, I can hear you, I’m with you, and I appreciate everything you’re doing.
Wasserman Schultz: We told her — when Kirsten was talking to her, she said — because she and her husband had just gone and had pizza with Gabby and Mark, so she said, you know, come on — come on, Gabby, you got to get going here, we’re going to go out for pizza. The last couple of summers, Gabby and Mark and Mark’s kids have vacationed with my family and I in New Hampshire. And I said, Gabby, we fully expect you to be up and ready to go to come back up to New Hampshire this summer, and that’s when she started to open her eye. And the Speaker was talking to her this whole time. We just kept alternately talking to her.
And literally the doctor said, no, you don’t understand, this is really, really significant progress. He starts pounding out a message on his BlackBerry. Her mother and father are just crying. When we — when they finally pretty much kicked us out because, you know, obviously —
Gillibrand: It was a lot of excitement.
Wasserman Schultz: A lot of excitement, she had to rest. We told her how much we loved her and we’d be back to see her and whatever she needed us to do, we’d be here for her. And we went out, Dr. Lemole, who is the one that’s been on TV and has been so good about explaining everything, he literally said to us, you know, I’ve discounted — on TV, I’ve discounted emotion being — and friendship and family — really, I’ve sort of discounted that as meaningless out loud. He said, I just witnessed the impact of friendship and what you guys — he said, you did this here today.
Gillibrand: I was holding her left hand.
Wasserman Schultz: We were alternating holding here hand.
Gillibrand: So this is Gabby’s hand and I’m just holding it like this and her hand — she kept doing this, she kept going like that, like her thumb was reacting. And then she squeezed, like she totally was present in every way.
Q: And then when she lifted up her arm, that was her right arm?
Gillibrand: The same one. Same arm. She lifted it up like this — it was like a whole hand thumbs up.
Wasserman Schultz: And he was trying to — he kept telling her, if you can see — he said, Gabby, if you can see me, give me a thumbs up sign, give me the thumbs up sign. And then she went — she pulled up her whole arm.
Gillibrand: Whole hand, like that.
Wasserman Schultz: Actually, they wanted her to calm down —
Gillibrand: They’re untying her arm because when she started to move more —
Wasserman Schultz: — involuntary movements —
Gillibrand: — they wanted to give her the freedom to move so — her hand had been secured. They unsecured it so she could move freely, and that’s when she brought the whole arm up to do her thumb up. Because they don’t want her to take the —
Wasserman Schultz: The neck tube. She was going back to reach for the breathing tube.
Gillibrand: Yes, she obviously doesn’t like the breathing tube.
Wasserman Schultz: Clearly uncomfortable.
Gillibrand: No, she has a tube in her mouth. No, she can’t move her face.
Wasserman Schultz: No expression. No expression. She just —
Gillibrand: She couldn’t because of the equipment. Even if she tried — I mean, she kept pursing her lips and I felt like she was trying to talk, but she has the breathing apparatus in her mouth so she can’t really —
Wasserman Schultz: But you could see — you could clearly see the determination in her face that she was struggling to get her eyes open because she was responding to our voices. It was like she wanted us to know that she knew we were — that we were there. It was —
Gillibrand: It was raw courage. It was raw strength. It was so beautiful and so moving. And, I mean, as I said, we were in tears. We couldn’t believe our eyes how courageous she was and how much she wanted to talk to us, that she wanted to — she wanted us to know that she was with us a hundred percent and understood everything we were saying and appreciated it.
Wasserman Schultz: They didn’t really tell us a whole lot. They didn’t warn us about anything. I mean, I had spoken to Mark on the phone and he kind of gave me an idea a couple days ago of what she looked like — I mean, where there was a big scar and what bandages there were and things like that. So I wasn’t so — actually she looked —
Gillibrand: She looked beautiful.
Wasserman Schultz: She did look beautiful.
Gillibrand: Absolutely beautiful.
Wasserman Schultz: And she looked not anything like you would imagine someone with a gunshot wound to the head would look. She looked angelic, I have to tell you. It was stunning. I mean, she — the strength that she has is — we were already aware of, but it clearly — I mean, it just resonates all the way through her.
Gillibrand: Well, if you ever have a chance to talk to her mother, you can understand where Gabby gets it from, because her mother was just sparkling with pride and her own level of determination and will.
Between her mother and Mark, there’s no doubt — both Debbie and I know Gabby has the courage and strength it will take to recover from this. We know her spirit is indomitable. We know she’s got the kind of conviction that it would take someone to recover from this kind of incident. But when I finally met her mother, I knew where it came from because her mother says, of course she’s getting better, of course she’s going to be walking soon.
And when I talked to Mark two days ago — both Debbie and I have been sharing this story — he said, Gabby is going to be walking. I told the doctor that Gabby would be walking on two weeks.