Wellwishers turn out as Giffords leaves hospital

An ambulance carried Gabrielle Giffords along a route lined with well-wishers holding flags yesterday, taking the congresswoman to a plane that will fly her to a Houston rehabilitation hospital and her next step in recovery.

It is the first time Ms Giffords left the Tucson hospital since she was brought there with a gunshot wound to the head nearly two weeks ago and people came to see her off with signs that read "Get well Gabby". "We want to be here to help her and show her a good farewell and hope that she has a great recovery," said Al Garcia, a Marine veteran who came on his Harley- Davidson motorcycle. "It's through all of these prayers that she's leaving in just two weeks."

Ms Giffords was travelling to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base with an escort from a group of motorcycle riders from a Veterans of Foreign Wars group who know her. From there, she was taken by medical flight to a Houston airport, then moved by helicopter to the ICU at Texas Medical Center, where she'll be evaluated and then taken to the center's rehabilitation hospital.

A gunman shot Ms Giffords and 18 other people on 8 January as she met with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. Six people died, including a nine-year-old girl. All other survivors have been released from hospital.

Giffords has been making progress nearly every day in her recovery from a bullet wound to the brain.

Doctors ticked off markers of her continuing improvement: She scrolled through an iPad, picked out different coloured objects and moved her lips. They are unsure whether she is mouthing words, nor do they know how much she is able to see.

Her husband, Houston-based astronaut Mark Kelly, believes she has tried to speak and can recognize those around her. "I can just look in her eyes and tell," Mr Kelly said at a final briefing on Thursday at the Tucson hospital. "She is very aware of the situation."

Yesterday morning he tweeted: "GG going to next phase of her recover today. Very grateful to the docs and nurses at UMC, Tucson PD, Sheriffs Dept....Back in Tucson ASAP!"

"Congresswoman Giffords is a fighter," her aide C.J. Karamargin said yesterday on CBS television. "She's as tough as nails. She's communicated with her husband in positive ways," he said, adding that she'll be "back very soon. There's no question about it."

The doctors who will help her offered a more sober outlook. "Not everyone always gets 100 per cent restoration, but we help them to get to a new normal," said Carl Josehart, chief executive of the rehab hospital that will be the Arizona congresswoman's home for the next month or two.

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