Gabrielle Giffords: The astonishing recovery of a politican shot in the head just five months ago

SHE was left for dead after a gunman's bullet tore through the left side of her brain.

• Gabrielle Giffords as she was before being shot, left, and a recent photo posted on Facebook yesterday. Picture: AP

But this remarkable picture of Gabrielle Giffords shows how, against all the odds, the American congresswoman is smiling again as she continues on the road to recovery just months after being shot.

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The 41-year-old politician was seriously injured after a lone gunman opened fire in Tucson, Arizona, while she was holding a meeting with constituents.

Six people died and a dozen others were wounded in the attack on 8 January.

Since then, the only public images of Ms Giffords came in April via blurry footage of her boarding a Nasa flight to Florida to watch her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, launch into space on the shuttle Endeavour.

However, two new photographs, posted on her Facebook page yesterday, have given her wellwishers and supporters cause for cautious celebration.

The pictures show the Democratic congresswoman for Arizona with her hair cropped short.

There is no clear scarring, only slight skin colouration on the side of her head where she was shot.

While she poses alone in the photograph shown here, Ms Gifford is pictured with her mother, Gloria, in the other.

More than 800 friends of Ms Giffords on the social networking site posted messages of support in the space of just two hours after the photos were put online.

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Linda Lopez, an Arizona state senator, wrote: "Wow! I saw her at the very end of March, and even then, Gabby was all there, her smile, her personality. And she looks even better now.

"I think people are going to be very happy to see how great she looks. For someone who's undergone what she's endured, it's really something.

"I feel relieved. She looks beautiful."

Ms Giffords has been recovering from her injuries in a Houston rehabilitation centre since two weeks after the shooting.

The newly-released images were taken by photojournalist PK Weis on 17 May, the day before Ms Giffords had cranioplasty, during which doctors repaired her skull, finally freeing her from a protective helmet.

Mr Weis, who has known Ms Giffords for more than a decade, said: "It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered in four and a half months. I was excited to see her, and to see her smile."

While the images have given cheer to followers of Ms Giffords, it is clear that she still faces an arduous recovery.

In an interview last week with the Arizona Republic, her chief of staff, Pia Carusone, said the congresswoman's limited ability to speak means she communicates mainly through facial expressions and hand gestures.

She explained: "She is borrowing on other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express - pointing, gesturing.

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"Add it all together and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But when it comes to a bigger, more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had trouble."

Ms Carusone said doctors and Ms Giffords' family were considering "many factors" while considering when she might be released from hospital, adding they "don't have a date" as yet.

The alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the shooting and has been declared incompetent to stand trial. He will return to court on 21 September, when a judge will review again whether he understands the 49 charges against him.

Prosecutors say they hope the trial will resume, but legal experts say Loughner, a schizophrenic, may never be found competent and may remain in a psychiatric unit indefinitely.