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Recovery in Process 

After a devastatingly bad day, the staff of Gabrielle Giffords went back to work

It's been one hell of a year for the people who work for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Giffords herself has been focused on recovering from the unthinkable: a gunshot wound to the head. Her district director, Ron Barber, who runs the Southern Arizona office, was shot twice and spent six months recovering before he could come back to work four hours per day. Another staffer, Pam Simon, was also shot twice, although her injuries were less severe.

Gabe Zimmerman, whose calm and gentle manner earned him the nickname "the constituent whisperer," was killed on Jan. 8. He was just 30 years old and had recently become engaged.

Despite all that—and despite a blinding media spotlight on the office that has brought an increased demand for constituent service—staffers have pushed forward and continued to deliver for the residents of Southern Arizona.

During a December appearance at UA's Centennial Hall, Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, praised their work: "I'd put them up against any member of Congress. They do an incredible job. The job got much, much harder in the last year, and they've really stepped up. I don't think anyone could expect anything more of them."

The Congressional District 8 staff met at a member's home the day after the shootings to figure out: What's next? What would Gabby want us to do?

Barber, who had been shot in the face and the upper thigh, heard about the meeting and called in from the intensive care unit. He let them know he wanted the office open on Monday morning.

The staff had already decided that's what would be done.

"It was a tough decision to make, if you think about it," Barber said. "There's a vulnerability that people feel after an event like this. And the emotion: Gabe was gone; Pam and I were in the hospital; and Gabby was very seriously wounded."

But, as C.J. Karamargin, the Giffords spokesman who has since moved on to become a vice chancellor at Pima Community College, told the Tucson Weekly on Monday, Jan. 10: "It was important for us to send the message that 'You ain't gonna intimidate us.'"

When staffers arrived to open the doors at 8 a.m. that Monday morning, they found a crowd of former employees and interns who came to help in whatever way they could. They all shared in a nationwide moment of silence for the victims.

And then they got to work dealing with the parade of friends and strangers who came by to offer sympathy, solace and support.

Having the former interns and staffers turn up "really saved us," said Mark Kimble, now the spokesman for the office, and a longtime friend of Giffords from his days as associate editor at the Tucson Citizen. "They knew the computer systems. They didn't need to be trained."

So many calls, letters, emails and packages poured in that the office had to get a special exemption from congressional rules that prohibit volunteer labor, so that the former interns and workers could help sort through it all.

Roger Salzgeber, one of the men who tackled the shooter on Jan. 8, found it therapeutic to help the office record the names of people who left notes for the staff.

"Those people really saved my ass," Salzgeber said. "Having something to do when you can't do anything, and you're so damned helpless, and Gabby is hanging on by a thread, and all this other stuff is going around ... to be inside of there and opening these messages, and you come across one, and you really start to lose it, and you have other people who are in the same boat who prop you back up. Everybody could see when you got one of those notes that just really hit home."

In Washington, D.C., the office has been under the command of Pia Carusone, Giffords' chief of staff. Carusone and her team have found ways to advance Giffords' agenda without her presence.

The Congressional District 8 office brought congressmen from other states to the Arizona-Mexico border to meet with ranchers and the Border Patrol. In the wake of that visit, Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas and Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania introduced legislation to provide $10 million to improve cell-phone reception along the border. The bill awaits action in the Senate.

The office has also coordinated efforts to protect Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, continued to push the Pentagon to improve energy efficiency and wean itself from fossil fuels, worked with California Congressman Darrell Issa to name the Naco Border Patrol station for slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, and taken up a new fight to help ensure that people with traumatic brain injuries get the treatment they need to recover.

Back here in Tucson, the CD8 office found itself fielding more calls than ever. Kimble estimated that the office's caseload is running about 20 percent higher than in 2010. In late November, the staff had about 1,200 open cases.

"That's higher than ever before," Barber said. "Part of it is, once you're in the press, you get a lot more attention. But also, the reputation that our staff has for being really good constituent workers has gotten out there."

Gail Black turned to Giffords' office when she tried to use a federal program to reduce her house payment following a divorce and a serious cardiac illness that left her unable to continue her job at the UA. After following a bank employee's advice on how to qualify for a federal program to lower her monthly mortgage payment, she nearly saw her home go into foreclosure.

Black credited the hard work of Amanda Sapir, who worked with the bank to accept Black's application for federal aid.

"I would be homeless today without their intervention and assistance," Black said. "I'm now able to stay in my home at a more-affordable mortgage rate.

Sapir has worked so many foreclosure cases that she's now giving advice to other congressional offices. Last month, the CD8 office hosted a public forum to aid homeowners who were struggling to keep their homes in conjunction with other local agencies.

Aiding constituents who are about to lose their homes has become a major focus of the office over the last year, but Barber said that the staff is still handling plenty of other cases, such as helping veterans and seniors get benefits, assisting ranchers and others with troubles on the border, and boosting the local solar industry, a longtime priority for Giffords.

Barber, 66, has been with Giffords since she launched her first congressional campaign in 2006. He retired from his job heading up the state's programs for the developmentally disabled in Southern Arizona to help her win the CD8 seat because he was so impressed with Giffords' work in the Arizona Legislature.

Even now, almost a year after the shootings, his doctors insist that he limit himself to no more than four hours a day at work, although he's hopeful he can expand that to six hours soon.

He has such severe nerve damage to his left leg that it remains numb below the knee, except when he feels pain. His foot hangs limp from his ankle because he can't control the muscles, so he's forced to wear a brace and often walks with a cane. He needs to keep the leg elevated in the afternoon to prevent swelling and other complications, but says he's grateful the doctors didn't have to amputate it.

Barber is still recovering from psychological wounds as well. He's seeing a counselor to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the toughest adjustments for Barber is the drop in his energy level. Barber used to get up at 5 a.m. and be off to work by 6:30. These days, it's tough to wake up before 7.

"I've had to come to terms with it," he said. "I'm just really tired in the morning."

Even so, Barber keeps busy. In addition to his 20 hours a week at the congressional office, Barber has organized the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, which supports anti-bullying training in local schools and programs to help young people with mental illnesses.

"There's a lot going on," Barber said. "The anti-bullying program is well underway. ... If you want civility in adults, you have to work with kids."

Pam Simon, who retired from a career as a schoolteacher to help Giffords win the congressional seat in 2006 and later joined the office to do community outreach, was back at work by late February.

Simon, 64, sometimes wonders if she should have taken more time off, but she wanted to get back to work as quickly as she could. She knew that Giffords would want her to ensure that the Congressional Art Competition for Southern Arizona high school students went off without a hitch. It did, with a ceremony at Tohono Chul Park in May honoring 65 students from high schools across Southern Arizona.

"We had the biggest and best ever," Simon said.

It was something of a miracle that Simon survived the shootings. One bullet hit her in the chest and traveled the length of her torso without hitting any vital organs. It was lodged in her upper thigh for several days before doctors removed it.

"I literally wake up every morning and say the words, 'I'm grateful to be alive,'" Simon said. "If I can put one word on this year, it's gratitude—grateful that Gabby's alive and doing as well as she is. Grateful for incredible family and friends and community support. I can't begin to say what it means when you're standing in line at Starbucks, and somebody says, 'I don't mean to bother you, but I saw you on TV, and I'm glad you're OK.' You just feel like the town is with you."

She described the last year as a journey that has helped her better understand PTSD, healing and grieving.

"I expected the grief process to be slow and sad and smooth," Simon said. "Instead, it's jagged. It's like falling through glass. You feel fine one day, and the next, something hits you right in the face."

Simon said she has learned a lot about forgiveness.

"Holding on to that anger weighs you down," Simon said. "It's a transforming power if you can learn to let the anger go. ... One of the things I have to be quick to say is that I did not lose a child or a spouse. I'm not dealing with a permanent disability, like Ron is. I understand that it would be much harder, but in all of those cases—the Greens, the Zimmermans, Ron—I don't see them hanging on to anger toward Jared Loughner. He was a sick individual, and it's a tragedy that society didn't offer him help."

The year has also taught her new lessons about resilience.

"In so many ways, Tucson is showing that positive spirit to pick up and move on," Simon said. "One of the traits of resiliency is connectedness, and one of the things that helped me heal emotionally and physically is being connected to my neighbors, my family and my friends."

Moments of laughter have also helped the healing process.

"In the last year, we've shed a lot of tears together," Simon said. "We've had a lot of touching moments. We've had a lot of difficult moments ... and we've had some really good laughs. The community reaches out in different ways, and some of those ways are a little humorous."

Giffords remains in Houston, going to rehab at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a hospital that specializes in helping people recover from brain injuries. Mark Kelly estimates that she does about five hours of therapy a day.

"She marches out that door every day and works hard," Kelly told Tucsonans at Centennial Hall last month. "She continues to get better, which is a really great, great thing."

Giffords took her first major trip from Houston in April, traveling to Cape Canaveral for the launch of the Endeavor space shuttle under the command of Kelly. A technical malfunction scrubbed the launch, but she was back in Florida in May when the Endeavor took off for the International Space Station. Her words upon watching the takeoff: "Good stuff."

Upon her return to Houston—while Kelly remained in orbit—Giffords had surgery to replace the parts of her skull that were removed by surgeons in the UMC emergency room.

After Kelly returned to Earth, he was able to bring Giffords home from the hospital, although she returns there nearly every day for physical therapy.

Giffords has made a handful of appearances in Washington, D.C., including a surprise appearance on Aug. 1 on the floor of the House of Representatives to vote on a controversial plan to raise the nation's debt ceiling. While the plan eventually passed with enough votes to spare, Giffords was monitoring the political jockeying leading up to the day of the vote and, according to members of Team Giffords, wanted to be in Washington in case it came down to one vote.

When she walked onto the House floor, both Republicans and Democrats broke into applause.

In October, Giffords traveled to D.C. for a ceremony honoring Kelly and the rest of the crew of the Endeavour.

She's also made a handful of visits to Tucson, including trips for Father's Day, Labor Day weekend and Thanksgiving. It was during that last trip that Giffords made her first public appearance in Tucson since Jan. 8, serving Thanksgiving dinner alongside Kelly to troops and veterans at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Mark Kimble said he hadn't seen Giffords so happy since the shootings. "She was exuberant."

During that trip, Giffords and Kelly also met with John and Roxanna Green, the parents of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl who was slain on Jan. 8.

"She wanted to express her condolences for their loss," Kelly said. "It was an emotional experience but something she felt very strongly about. ... Eventually, she wants to meet with the families of all the victims."

Giffords will be back in Tucson this weekend, although her staff has not released details regarding public appearances.

Whether Giffords will be able to run for re-election remains to be seen. Kelly told Arizona Public Media last month that "whether she could win the election or not is not a factor in her making this decision. She's a good campaigner. But the decision hinges on how well she can do the job."

Giffords' proposed new district—the Congressional District 2, drawn up by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission—is a bit friendlier to Democrats. It has lost Republican-leaning precincts in areas like Oro Valley, Marana and SaddleBrooke.

Other potential candidates are exploring campaigns. On the Democratic side, state Rep. Matt Heinz and state Sen. Paula Aboud are quietly building support, although neither is likely to challenge Giffords if she is healthy enough to run.

On the Republican side, state Sen. Frank Antenori has been raising money and doing some polling. Antenori told the Tucson Weekly he's leaning toward running, especially now that his home has been drawn into a Democratic legislative district mostly made up of Tucsonans as part of the redistricting process.

Local sports broadcaster Dave Sitton, who has not sought public office before, announced in November that he was exploring a run on the Republican side.

Kelly has downplayed rumors that he'll seek the seat in Giffords' place.

"My job is to make sure she can run for office," Kelly said last month.

He told the crowd at Centennial Hall that Giffords continues to improve as her brain knits itself back together.

"We have some work to do, but we'll get there," Kelly said. "Cognition, comprehension, personality—all of things that make up a person and who they are, that's all there. ... I know that if there's anybody who's strong enough to get through this, it's her."

More by Jim Nintzel

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