THE BLOG
11/16/2011 01:46 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

Why Gabby Giffords' Recovery Is Not a Miracle

When I heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) had been shot I was dismayed. I had never heard of her before and I was curious about who she was and why someone would want to shoot her. Reading up on her, I discovered that she is a conscientious, intelligent and apparently well-liked representative from Arizona's 8th congressional district. When the extent of her injuries became clear, no one could be sure she would survive. Her recovery to this point has been tremendous and has been referred to as miraculous by her own doctors. Diane Sawyer's 20/20 report on Gabby Giffords' recovery has placed the spotlight on the importance of rehabilitation for the recovery from traumatic brain injuries. The portion of the show that I saw was featured on Nightline with Ms. Sawyer and Bob Woodruff. Mr. Woodruff also recovered from a massive brain injury sustained while reporting from Iraq in 2006. Gabby Giffords and Bob Woodruff are two people of great courage and determination. But their recovery was not a miracle.

You need intensive rehabilitation to recover from the sort of catastrophic injuries endured by Bob Woodruff and Gabby Giffords. Thanks to her health insurance plan as a member of the U.S. Congress, Ms. Giffords has received the very best treatment available. She has had a team of specialists available to assist her through the whole process. She received physical therapy, speech therapy, music therapy and probably psychological therapy as well. We are shown scene after scene of various therapeutic sessions in which Ms. Giffords gets frustrated, makes progress, receives encouragement from a staff of obviously extremely competent and caring therapists. As the report continued, I reflected that her recovery was amazing and even inspiring. But it was not a miracle or anything approaching it.

More and more, our medical professionals are discovering just how resilient the human brain is and how much recovery is possible under the right circumstances. As Ms. Sawyer's report makes clear, Gabby Giffords is a determined fighter who has worked hard every inch of the way to regain physical and mental function. In this she has been supported by her devoted and loving husband, Mark Kelly. You can't do this alone. You need family and friends around to lift your spirits when you get frustrated and feel like giving up. There are plateaus in recovery during which you feel like you aren't making progress and it is sometimes emotionally devastating. It is during the first year after a traumatic brain injury when the vast majority of the recovery is done and it is vitally important that as much is done as possible because it seems that the brain stops searching out new pathways to function after this period expires.

Following his recovery, Bob Woodruff founded ReMIND.org to help injured military veterans along the road to recovery. I don't know Mr. Woodruff's reasons but I suspect he discovered that our nation's veterans were being woefully underserved during the process of rehabilitation. It is a laudable effort and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ms. Giffords and her husband take some initiative to help others as they seem to be such decent and civic minded people. It places an invaluable spotlight on the paramount importance of rehabilitation in the process of recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

My own experience of recovering from a traumatic brain injury in 1999 was different from theirs. I was a rising cook in New York City and had just received a promotion to Chef de Cuisine in one of the city's top restaurants. But like a lot of New Yorkers my pay was lagging behind the cost of living and I was caught in what would turn out to be a national epidemic of declining expectations. It took two weeks pay to cover the rent and there was not enough money left to pay for health insurance. When I was attacked by a pair of violent crack addicts on my way home from work, I was not prepared for what followed.

I was left with a broken nose from being repeatedly punched in the face, a neck injury from being choked until unconscious, smashed front teeth and a traumatic brain injury from having my head slammed into the sidewalk. Without health insurance things went from bad to worse. There was a massive emergency room bill and teeth to be repaired but that was only money. Financial ruin, as I was soon to discover, is not the worst thing that can happen to you in life. This type of injury also comes with flashbacks, short term memory loss and confusion, headaches and loss of concentration, anxiety, expressive aphasia and panic attacks. That's in addition to the physical pain you feel when you regain consciousness. I imagine that Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Giffords experienced these symptoms as well since their brain injuries were much more severe than mine. Without health insurance, my team of therapists consisted of my wife without whom I do not know if I would have survived.

In the end, I lost my job and I have never been the same. I no longer function at the same level due to chronic anxiety, permanent short term memory impairment and a diminished capacity for multi-tasking, all of which are so vitally important in the work of a restaurant kitchen. I now work in a lesser capacity and will earn less money during my lifetime as a result. In short, I was financially, professionally and emotionally ruined. I don't know if it would have been different if I'd had access to a team of rehabilitation specialists. I wish that I'd had the option.

I do not begrudge Ms. Giffords or Mr. Woodruff their access to first class healthcare. I am very glad for them that they received such great care because I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to try to recover from such an injury without any support from a team of rehab specialists. I just wish that we as a nation could figure out a way to share healthcare a little better. We are not doing a very good job of it and it is beginning to look like a lot of hard-working Americans are becoming discouraged and losing hope. Our representatives don't seem to be looking out for us.

Gabby Giffords seems to me to be the kind of representative I would like to vote for. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) represents the bizarrely gerrymandered 8th District of New York which covers the Upper West Side of Manhattan from 89th St. all the way downtown through Tribeca and the Financial District and then across the river into Brooklyn, taking a minute slice from my neighborhood in Sunset Park, before veering south and gobbling up most of Coney Island. You can imagine that people from my neighborhood do not get a great deal of his attention. The last time I wrote to Congressman Jerrold Nadler's office I never received a response. Maybe he was too busy working on health care reform. But if he ever experiences a traumatic brain injury, he can rest secure in the knowledge that he will have the very best rehabilitation team that money can buy. If only the rest of us could be so lucky.