HOUSTON — Two portraits of a smiling Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gave the nation its closest look yet at the congresswoman's remarkable recovery less than six months after she was shot in the head at point-blank range outside a supermarket.
The pictures posted Sunday on Facebook were the first clear photos of the Arizona congresswoman who rose to national prominence after a gunman opened fire on her in January as she met with constituents in Tucson. Six people were killed and 13 others wounded.
But the images left unanswered many questions about her cognitive abilities and when — or even if — she will be able to resume her job in Congress.
"The image doesn't tell us the inner mental state or the brain itself, how it's functioning," said Jordan Grafman, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory at the Kessler Foundation Research Center in West Orange, N.J., explaining that many brain-injury patients look good within months of being hurt.
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"What's their social skills? Do they have a nuanced sense of humor? Can they participate in activities? All that is what's important," asked Grafman, who has not treated Giffords.
In one of the images, Giffords smiles broadly and looks straight at the camera like a high school student posing for a yearbook. In another, more candid shot, she is grinning alongside her mother. In both, her smile is largely unchanged, though her hair is shorter and darker. The pictures give few indications she has been hurt, let alone shot in the forehead.
Giffords' aides say she could be ready to be released from a rehabilitation center later this month or in early July. The idea was to discourage a "paparazzi-like frenzy" of photography when she attends outpatient therapy in a more public setting, they said.
The congresswoman's staff said the images had not been altered or touched up in any way. But other than saying the pictures were taken May 17 at the Houston rehabilitation hospital where Giffords has been undergoing treatment, her staff offered no further insight into her recovery.
For months, they have closely guarded Giffords and information about her condition. Her doctors, in the absence of permission from the family to speak publicly, remain mum. So the release of the photos attracted intense interest.
Giffords was shot in the left side of the head, the part of the brain that controls speech and communication. Doctors, friends and families have said she can speak, sing some of her favorite songs and engage in some conversation.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told NBC's "Meet the Press" she had a "wonderful conversation" Wednesday with Giffords on the phone, and that this time her colleague even initiated some of the topics they discussed.
Since she was wounded, the public's only other glance of Giffords came in grainy images from late April that showed her slowly walking up the steps of a NASA jet that flew her to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, rocket into space.
The launch was delayed, forcing Giffords to make a second trip to Florida in May, when she watched the blastoff from a wheelchair.
Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin acknowledged that the congresswoman looks different now than in the photos. Her hair is shorter because her head was shaved ahead of surgery to repair a gap in her skull that had initially been left open to allow her brain to swell. Doctors also fixed what appear to be subtle inequities between her eyes seen in the pictures, he said.
The photos were released to help satisfy "intense interest in the congresswoman's appearance." And they seemed to please the public and her admirers.
Chief of staff Pia Carusone indicated in an interview published Thursday in the Arizona Republic that, despite reports that Giffords is talking and walking, she remains a shadow of her bubbly self. The congresswoman, she said, can verbalize her basic needs, but struggles to string together more complex thoughts.
Carusone stopped short of answering the most critical questions: Will Giffords' resume her post in the House of Representatives and will she run for the Senate?
Until the Jan. 8 shooting, some Arizona Democrats viewed Giffords as one of their best hopes for gaining votes in the Senate.
The pictures were taken by Tucson photographer P.K. Weis, who said he has known the congresswoman for at least 10 years.
For some, simply seeing the congresswoman smiling and radiant was encouraging.
Susan Hileman, who survived three gunshot wounds in the rampage, said she spent Sunday morning smiling while looking at photos of Giffords.
"I am delighted and pleasantly surprised," said Hileman, who was holding the hand of 9-year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green when the gunfire erupted. "Look at that smile. How could you not be happy looking at that smile?"