Shot congresswoman able to communicate

A congresswoman shot in the head in an assassination attempt that killed six others is able to respond to doctors' commands, a surgeon said tonight.

Dr Michael Lemole, who is treating 40-year-old Gabrielle Giffords at the University Medical Centre in Tucson, Arizona, told a news conference that she is able to communicate.

Dr Lemole said the gunshot went through the left side of her head and that surgeons worked to reduce pressure from swelling in the brain by removing bone fragments.

Giffords was shot by a gunman yesterday as she met with constituents at a Tucson supermarket.

Six others were killed, and 14 wounded, including the congresswoman.

Doctors said they were "very, very encouraged" by her ability to respond to simple commands along with their success in controlling her bleeding.

Surgeons said the bullet went through Giffords' head on the left side of the brain, but she is still able to respond to commands such as squeezing a hand or showing two fingers. They credited several reasons for her survival, including good luck and the fact that paramedics got her to surgeons quickly - in under 40 minutes.

"This is about as good as it is going to get," said Dr Peter Rhee, a trauma surgeon.

"When you get shot in the head and the bullet goes through your brain, the chances of you living is very small and the chances of you waking up and actually following commands is even much smaller than that. Hopefully. it will stay that way."

The medical prognosis came as authorities investigated the motivation of a gunman in the attempted assassination of the three-term Democratic lawmaker and the killing of six people, including a federal judge, an aide to Giffords and a nine-year-old girl.

Mourners crammed into the tiny sanctuary of Giffords' synagogue in Tucson to pray for her quick recovery. Outside the hospital, candles flickered at a makeshift memorial.

Authorities said Giffords was targeted at a public gathering by a man with a semiautomatic weapon yesterday morning outside a busy Tucson supermarket. Fourteen people were injured, including the congresswoman.

He also fired at her district director and shot indiscriminately at staffers and others standing in line to talk to the congresswoman, said Mark Kimble, a communications staffer for Giffords.

"He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman and the district director," Kimble said, describing the scene as "just complete chaos, people screaming, crying".

One of the victims was nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who was a member of the student council at her local school and went to the event because of her interest in government. She is the grandaughter of Dallas Green, the former manager of the Philadelphia Phillies major league baseball team.

She was born on 9/11 and featured in a book called "Faces of Hope" that chronicled one baby from each state born on the day terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the US

The fact that Christina's life ended in tragedy was especially tragic to those who knew her. "Tragedy seems to have happened again," said the author of the book, Christine Naman. "In the form of this awful event."

Police said the gunman was in custody, and was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22.

His motivation was not immediately known, but Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described him as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice.

His office said a man possibly associated with Loughner who was near the scene was being sought. The man, who was photographed by a security camera, was described as white with dark hair and 40-45 years old.

The assassination attempt left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.

Giffords faced frequent backlash from the right over her support of the health care reform last year, and had her office vandalised the day the House of Representatives approved the landmark measure.

Dupnik lashed out at what he called an excessively "vitriolic" atmosphere in the months leading up to the rampage as he described the chaos of the day.

The sheriff said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman.

"He was definitely on a mission," according to event volunteer Alex Villec, a former Giffords intern.

A shaken President Barack Obama called the attack "a tragedy for our entire country."

Attorney General Eric Holder said that FBI Director Robert Mueller was travelling to Arizona to help co-ordinate the investigation.

In a brief statement House Speaker John Boehner said flags on the House side of the Capitol in Washington will be flown at half staff to honour Giffords' slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman. Boehner says normal House business this week is postponed to focus on any necessary actions in the shooting aftermath.

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