Lives in the Balance

As he recovers from his wounds, Ron Barber looks for ways to help others

Ron Barber doesn't want to be stuck in a recliner in his living room, keeping his damaged leg elevated.

"I really want to get back to work," says Barber, the 65-year-old director of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' Tucson office. Barber was shot twice on Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire on the crowd that had gathered for a Congress on Your Corner event, killing six and wounding 13.

Barber can't go back to the office yet. His left leg suffered severe nerve damage, leaving it numb beneath the knee—except for when he feels severe pain. Without a brace, his foot dangles from his ankle, because his mind can't give it commands. He's working with a physical therapist and slowly learning how to walk again.

"I know I have to build my stamina back up slowly but surely," he says. "It's hard to know how long it's going to take, but hopefully not too long."

His injuries haven't stopped Barber from organizing a mammoth benefit concert next Thursday, March 10, when an all-star lineup that includes Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Sam Moore, Keb' Mo', Ozomatli, Nils Lofgren, Calexico and other special guests will play at the Tucson Convention Center. (For more on the concert, see Page 57.)

Browne says it was not difficult to convince him to headline the concert.

"It's a pretty natural response to get together and do something that everybody can participate in and restore a feeling of community and goodness," Browne told the Tucson Weekly.

The concert will raise money for Barber's new project, the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, designed to help victims of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage with their financial needs in the short term, and to support programs that discourage bullying in schools and help the mentally ill in the long term.

"When I think about civility, respect and understanding, it's how kids treat each other at school," Barber says. "It's how we regard people with mental illness who are socially devalued in our culture."

Barber doesn't intend to get directly involved in promoting civility in politics; he says that's a job better left to organizations like the UA's new National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Barber says the idea behind the fund came while he was recovering from the shooting in the University Medical Center intensive-care unit.

"As a family, we were just absolutely overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill and love and compassion," Barber says. "It was just astounding."

Barber wanted to channel that desire to help into a sustainable program—a natural instinct for a man who has dedicated his life to public service.

"I've never aspired to public office, but I've always wanted to serve in some capacity and give to the community, which is just what I've done," Barber says.

Barber spent most of his 30-plus-year career with the state heading up the Southern Arizona branch of the state Division of Developmental Disabilities. Although he served for a few years as acting head of the entire division in the late 1980s, he was happy to relinquish control and return to Southern Arizona.

"I couldn't wait to get back to the regional directorship, where I could talk to a family that had a child with disabilities, or meet with a group of people with disabilities. Or I could influence or help set up a new program," he says. "For me, that's where it's at."

He's proud that during his tenure, the state closed down homes for the mentally challenged.

"I believed we had to get people out of institutions in a proper way, with the level of coverage and support they needed to be successful in the community," Barber says.

He quit the job in early 2006 to help Giffords win the Congressional District 8 seat, and when she asked him to run the district office, he accepted the job. He remembers that she told him she wanted to deliver the best constituent service in the country.

"That was her priority," says Barber, who helped build a staff of people who had experience in social work.

Before he can get back to his job, Barber has a lot of healing to do. He can control the pain in his leg through medication, but walking remains a struggle. He can only hope that his nerves regenerate; the doctors tell him it's a slow process, so he may have to wait a year or more before he knows how much feeling he'll recover.

"There is no treatment for it," he says. "You just have to wait and see."

Then there's the emotional toll. In the weeks after he got out of the hospital, he had a lot of trouble sleeping.

"I was playing the tape over and over again in my head," he says. "Nothing in my whole life even remotely prepared me for something like this. It was just horrific. And I know I'll be dealing with it forever."

Barber remembers standing a few feet from Giffords and talking to federal Judge John Roll when the gunman rushed up to Giffords and shot her in the head before turning the gun on him.

He didn't realize he'd taken bullets to the face and groin until he saw he was lying in a puddle of his own blood. Gabe Zimmerman, the District 8 office's "constituent whisperer" who had worked with Barber since the 2006 campaign, was shot dead next to him.

Even as he struggled to remain conscious after members of the crowd subdued Jared Lee Loughner, 22, Barber was thinking of Giffords. He ordered her intern, Daniel Hernandez, to stay with the congresswoman, whose life may have been saved by Hernandez's first-aid efforts.

"I remember saying to him, 'Daniel, I'm fine. Go to Gabby. Take care of Gabby,'" he says.

Through the haze, he tried to find his missing Blackberry so he could begin making phone calls. A bystander, Anna Ballis, was applying pressure to Barber's mangled leg; her husband eventually had to force Barber to lie back until paramedics arrived and airlifted him to University Medical Center.

Barber has learned a lot about anatomy from his doctors. They tell him the shot that tore through his cheek and neck missed the carotid artery by 2 millimeters. The other bullet blew out the femoral vein but only nicked the femoral artery. Trauma surgeon Peter Rhee's team managed to save his left leg from amputation by grafting veins from his right leg.

He's struggled through complications since leaving the hospital, including some worrisome swelling in his leg after he attended a January memorial service for Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent who was killed in the line of duty in December.

It's not in his nature to take it easy. Barber has felt the calling to public service since his days at Rincon High School, where he served on the student council after coming to the United States from England with his parents.

"Like most converts, I'm really enamored with the American system," he says.

As he came of age in the 1960s, he saw some of his heroes—John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—killed by assassins.

"It was like a shattering of dreams," Barber says.

But his optimism about America has not dimmed.

"In spite of everything that's happened in our country in the last two years and all the harsh rhetoric, I still believe you can get things done that are good," he says. "That's why I do what I do in public service, and that's why I work for Gabby."

He remembers talking with Giffords late one night at the end of a road trip about why they were here on the planet.

"She sort of summed it up by saying, 'I think we're here to care for each other,' and I really believe that," Barber says. "We stumble and make mistakes and don't get everything right, but I think that's our real purpose."

Eric Swedlund contributed to this article.

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