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On the Mend 

Six months after the shooting rampage, Ron Barber returns to work

Ron Barber walked through the door of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' Tucson office to a rousing cheer.

"So what's been happening for the last six months?" he asked with a wide smile.

Barber was welcomed back to work as the district director on Tuesday morning, July 5, by a staff that missed him tremendously while he recovered after being shot twice on Jan. 8.

A big "Welcome Back, Ron" banner was spread across the doorway of his office, and slices of carrot cake were shared as members of the staff hugged the 65-year-old Barber.

Rodd McLeod, who has been filling in for Barber, warned him that there was a lot of work to get done.

"Ron, you've got 14,627 unread e-mails," McLeod joked. "And after that, we'll get to the tweets."

Barber's wife, Nancy, joked that bringing Barber to the office felt like dropping off a kid on the first day of school.

"I've had him for six months, and now I'm letting him go," she said. "Now all we have to do is get Gabby back, and we're set."

Barber says he's been eager to return to work.

"I've been wanting to get back almost since I got out of the hospital," Barber says. "I had unrealistic expectations that I could be back in a month or less, and that was obviously not the case, so I'm learning how to be patient with it."

Barber says he's on a "short leash" from his doctor, who has told him he can only work four hours per day.

Being back on the job is an important step for Barber, who was nearly killed after one bullet passed through his cheek and out the back of his neck, and a second hit him in the upper thigh. The skilled hands of surgeons at University Medical Center's trauma center saved his left leg from amputation.

Six people were killed in the Jan. 8 shooting, including Gabe Zimmerman, who was the first person Barber hired when he set up Giffords' office after her 2006 election to Congress.

"Gabe not being here is a big hole in all our hearts," says Barber.

Thirteen people were wounded, including Barber and Giffords, who is still recovering in Houston after being shot in the head. She made her first public appearance since Jan. 8 last week at a ceremony in Houston honoring her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, and his fellow astronauts who were aboard the Endeavour space shuttle mission that launched in May.

Later in the week, Mark Kelly shot down speculation that he'd run in Giffords' place if she were unable to seek re-election to her congressional seat in 2012.

"She's the politician in the family," said Kelly, who announced he'd be retiring from the U.S. Navy and NASA in October. "I am the space guy, and I see no reason to change that now."

Barber saw Giffords over Father's Day weekend, when she made her first trip to Tucson since being shot.

"I don't really have the words to describe how wonderful it was," he says. "We just had a great time together, and it was the first time we'd seen each other since she left Tucson, so it was a big deal for me, and I think it might have been for her, too."

Barber says Giffords is "doing incredibly well."

"I was totally blown away by it," he says. "I talked to her about a lot of things, a whole range of topics. Every single thing that I talked to her about, she got. ... She's still working on expanding the length of sentences and that kind of thing, but there's no doubt in my mind that she understood and responded appropriately to everything that I talked to her about."

Barber says that Giffords misses Tucson.

"She talks about it all the time," he says. "She loves this town, and when she was here, she took a tour of the places she loves to go to—the Rialto, Raging Sage, Feast. I just know that it meant a lot for her to see them, even though she didn't go in."

Barber, who spent most of his career with the state of Arizona working with developmentally disabled adults, says he's seen people with head injuries who experienced the same type of aphasia that Giffords is now wrestling with.

"I'm really confident, having seen her, that she's going to be back to as close to 100 percent as she can get over the next couple of months," he says.

Seeing Giffords helped Barber with his own healing process.

"I think my spirits are really lifted, and it was a real help to my healing to be with her for a while," Barber says.

Barber remains haunted by the shooting, both physically and psychologically. His wounded leg remains numb below the knee, and he walks with a cane.

"By 7 o'clock, my foot is on fire usually, but I've have a couple of good days here, so I'm hoping that's a new norm for me," Barber says.

He's also surprised by how exhausted he gets. He used to need six hours of sleep per night; he'd be out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and off to the office by 7. But now, even after nine hours of sleep, he finds it hard to get out of bed at 8 a.m.

"I really have a lot of fatigue," he says. "I get that there's this whole healing process going on, but it's just not like how I used to be."

He also wakes up at least once every night.

"I look at the clock, and it's 3 o'clock, every single night," he says. "Usually, I'm dreaming. A lot of time, it's about the congresswoman and Gabe. I wake up, and I have a lot of trouble getting back to sleep. I do get back to sleep. I used to be interrupted three or four times a night, so this is OK compared to that."

Last week, Barber visited Yuma for the groundbreaking of a new federal courthouse named after U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, who was killed on Jan. 8.

Barber first met Roll when they were both involved in campus politics in the mid-'60s. While they later fell out of touch, they reconnected when Giffords asked Barber to reach out to the federal judiciary.

"I just wish he could have been (in Yuma) to see the groundbreaking," Barber says.

More by Jim Nintzel

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