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How Gabby Giffords is using music to rewire her brain after being shot


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: President Biden reached out and elbow-bumped with former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords at the White House Rose Garden today, a moment to mark a new push to curb gun violence.

In 2011, Giffords was shot in the head outside of Tucson; 18 others were also shot. Six died. In the years since, Giffords has become a fierce advocate for ending gun violence, and is own her own quest to live a rich life and rewire her brain.

Jeffrey Brown shows how her grit brings joy, as music and science open new doors.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.


Jeffrey Brown: A recent lesson on the French horn. It's known as a difficult instrument to play and master, and, for this amateur musician, it represents a kind of miracle.

Gabrielle Giffords: Applause. Applause.

Jeffrey Brown: When did you start playing the French horn?

Gabrielle Giffords: I was 13 years old.

Jeffrey Brown: And why did you choose the French horn?

Gabrielle Giffords: It's so difficult. I loved the challenge. The music filled me up inside.

Jeffrey Brown: Ten years ago, Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords was shot at close range while meeting with constituents outside a supermarket. The bullet entered near her left eye and passed through the left side of her brain before exiting at the back of her skull.

She survived and was transferred to the Institute for Rehabilitation and research, called TIRR for short, at Memorial Hermann Medical Center in Houston.

Chief medical officer Dr. Gerard Francisco oversaw her care.

Dr. Gerard Francisco: The important thing to remember is that the impairments that will result from a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound to the head is a function of the location that has been damaged.

Jeffrey Brown: In Gabby Giffords' case, that was the left side of her brain, which controls language and speech ability.

Gabrielle Giffords: From Arizona.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to paralysis, she suffered an impairment called aphasia, also seen in many stroke victims.

Gerard Francisco: Aphasia is a very complex disorder of speech and language.

Jeffrey Brown: Characteristically, Giffords herself is much more blunt.

Gabrielle Giffords: Aphasia really sucks. The words are there in my brain. I just can't get them out. I love to talk. I'm gabby.

Jeffrey Brown: Fun-loving, quick-witted, smart as they come. She understands everything. But the words themselves don't come.

Gabrielle Giffords: Let's go.

Jeffrey Brown: The neural connectors that translate thoughts and ideas into speech and language were damaged. And that's meant a decade of near constant therapy and exercises to retrain her body and brain.

Her partner throughout, her husband astronaut Mark Kelly, the newly elected U.S. senator from Arizona. She's made remarkable strides, but enormous challenges remain.

Fabi Hirsch Kruse: We have spent a lot of time trying to build the things she wants to say into things that are more fluent and easy for her to achieve. And it takes a lot of work.

Gabrielle Giffords: Lend me her mittens.

Jeffrey Brown: Fabi Hirsch Kruse, a speech pathologist and expert on aphasia, has worked with Giffords since the shooting.

To get a sense of just how difficult speaking is, consider our short interview. We were asked to provide questions well ahead of time, not standard journalistic practice, then to pose them in a precise order.

Fabi Hirsch Kruse: We worked for several weeks preparing the questions and the responses, so that Gabby was able to express herself as best she could. Her ability to take information in is very strong. She has her difficulties with aphasia, her strengths and her struggles.

Gabrielle Giffords (singing): Amazing grace.

Jeffrey Brown: One thing that helps Giffords, her love of singing and music. Last August, she gave a rousing speech titled "Summoning Hope" at the Democratic National Convention.

Just 90 seconds' long, Hirsch Kruse says it took months of preparation. And she sketched in musical and other notation on the script to help Giffords with the delivery.

Gabrielle Giffords: We are at a crossroads.

Jeffrey Brown: One line in particular gave Giffords trouble.

Fabi Hirsch Kruse: "I put one foot in front of the other," which was a really difficult line to master.

And I just remembered hearing that in a song when I was younger. And so I found lyrics and music, and we just incorporated that into our sessions. And she used the music to help her get to the words.

Gabrielle Giffords: I put one foot in front of the other. I found one word, and then I found another.

Jeffrey Brown: Giffords also played "America" on the French horn. She'd picked up the instrument again after the shooting and incorporated it into her regular regime of therapy and rebuilding.

How often do you practice nowadays?

Gabrielle Giffords: Five days a week.

Jeffrey Brown: Five days. A lot.

Gabrielle Giffords: A lot.


Jeffrey Brown: Did you have to relearn to play?

Gabrielle Giffords: Not really. It's all still there in my brain. Reading the music is hard.

Carolyn Sturm: Second finger.

Jeffrey Brown: And not just reading music, but even learning to hold the instrument again and get the fingerings right. But play, she does.

Carolyn Sturm: At parties she loves to play. She's played for a recital. And she never gets nervous like everyone else does.

Jeffrey Brown: Carolyn Sturm, a retired professional French horn player and teacher now living in Tucson, heard about Giffords' love of the instrument and volunteered to work with her.

Carolyn Sturm: Most of the progress has been reading the music, but it's just been incredibly slow. She has a beautiful sound, but it's the technical side of things and the logistics, all of that.

Jeffrey Brown: Music may be doing even more than offering pleasure and stimulation for Giffords' motor functions.

Early on, during her time at the TIRR rehabilitation center in Houston, her caregivers used what's called neurologic music therapy.

Gerard Francisco: We also used neurologic music therapy, because we are firm believers that the language center is connected to other parts of the brain that can help recover not only speech. It can also help recover cognition and movement as well.

Jeffrey Brown: The music function, the ability to understand pitch, intonation, rhythm and the words in a song, is spread through various parts of the brain.

Is the idea of the therapy in general to somehow reconnect all these connectors that have been broken?

Gerard Francisco: Our premise is that neurologic music therapy works, because it can help induce brain plasticity...

Woman: Keep going. Keep going.

Gerard Francisco: ... or, very simply, the healing of the different connections between brain cells.

Jeffrey Brown: Just how it works, he says, remains unclear. The therapy and research, though around for decades, are still in early stages.

Gerard Francisco: It's one of the most popular therapies that we have here. Sometimes, I will hear a boom, boom, boom. I used to be concerned what that is.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2015, Giffords visited the hospital and offered Dr. Francisco and other caregivers emotional proof of her progress.

Gabrielle Giffords: Americans are counting on you.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to her personal therapy, Gabby Giffords continues her longtime political and legal advocacy to stop gun violence.

Computer Voice: He had left the gun, a tactical vest.

Jeffrey Brown: Through her work at the national nonprofit Giffords.

Gabrielle Giffords: Enough is enough. Enough is enough. Background checks now.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you tell yourself when things are difficult?

Gabrielle Giffords: Move ahead.

Jeffrey Brown: And keep playing.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Just wonderful. I am speechless.

Thank you.

And thank you, Gabby Giffords.

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