Herseth Sandlin visits Giffords, Johnson offers encouragementMany South Dakotans were emotionally affected by news coverage of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Arizona, which left six people dead and 13 others wounded.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Many South Dakotans were emotionally affected by news coverage of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Arizona, which left six people dead and 13 others wounded.
For Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the tragedy was deeply personal.
Herseth Sandlin and Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who sustained a nearly fatal head wound in the shooting, were born the same year and were Democratic colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, where both were members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
Giffords was conducting a meet-and-greet event with constituents near Tucson when she was shot in the head. Jared Lee Loughner has been charged in the shooting.
Giffords is recovering at the TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. March 1-2, Herseth Sandlin stopped by and visited her friend and former colleague.
In an interview with The Daily Republic, Herseth Sandlin said Giffords was “more than alert,” and they enjoyed the time together.
“She clearly recognized me and gave me a hug, she smiled broadly and approvingly when I showed her Zachary’s 2-year-old picture with his guitar,” Herseth Sandlin said, referring to her son. “And she moved my purse to the floor so I could sit back more comfortably in my chair.”
Giffords’ hair is growing back and her head wounds are healing, according to published reports. She wears a helmet during therapy; it has the colors of the Arizona flag on it.
Doctors provided new details about Giffords’ condition Friday. The developments, according to The Associated Press, include the removal of her breathing tube last week and her improving ability to walk with assistance and talk in complete sentences such as “I’m tired. I want to go to bed.”
Giffords plans to attend the launch of the space shuttle endeavor on April 19, according to her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin. Giffords’ husband, astronaut and Navy pilot Mark Kelly, is the shuttle mission’s commander.
Herseth Sandlin, who lost her re-election bid in November, is married to former Texas congressman Max Sandlin. She was in Texas and met with Giffords on two occasions, once on the night of March 1 and again on the morning of March 2.
“I made the trip to Houston by myself. I was not in Texas with Max,” she said. “I was in Texas with family for a few days in December for the holidays. My trip to Houston was the first time I have been to Texas in 2011.”
Herseth Sandlin also spoke with Kelly.
On Jan. 9, a day after Giffords was shot, Herseth Sandlin discussed the attack and broke down in tears during the interview.
“It’s awful. It’s really awful,” Herseth Sandlin said in a telephone interview from her home in Brookings. “On so many levels, it’s awful.”
She sent an e-mail to Giffords shortly after learning of the shooting, realizing the wounded congresswoman wouldn’t see it for some time.
“I wanted her to know my thoughts were with her at the time,” Herseth Sandlin said in the Jan. 9 interview.
The women have a great deal in common. There were only a few women in the 52-member Blue Dog Coalition, Herseth Sandlin said, so they became close and a friendship grew.
After some other friends organized a bridal shower for Herseth Sandlin, she put one together for Giffords. Herseth Sandlin said she and “Gabby” also sometimes discussed balancing family life with a career in politics. Kelly has two daughters, and Giffords is their stepmother.
Another prominent South Dakota Democrat, Sen. Tom Johnson, understands all too well what Giffords is dealing with.
Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage at work on Dec. 13, 2006, during a teleconference with South Dakota journalists.
He underwent emergency brain surgery later than same day and was placed in a medically induced coma.
He slowly recovered from the illness before returning to the Senate and is now the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
“I came along considerably slower,” Johnson told The Arizona Republic in an interview. “She is coming along amazingly quickly.”
He urged patience and said the outcome is still unclear.
“But you should be encouraged by her progress so far,” he told the newspaper.
Johnson’s right side remains partly paralyzed, causing him to walk with a limp and use a cane. His right arm hangs from his side, forcing him to adapt to using his left hand. He often rides a motorized scooter and relies on the aid of his wife, Barbara, his staffers and others for assistance.
At some joint events, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has offered a helping hand to his former rival.
The day after Giffords and the others were shot, Thune said he didn’t know her but may have met her a time or two at gatherings in Washington, D.C. He said since he is a senator and a Republican, and she is a representative and a Democrat, their paths rarely crossed.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., had only been in office for a few days when Giffords was shot and had never met the Arizona congresswoman.
Johnson no longer takes part in formal physical and occupational therapy, but he exercises at home with his wife’s help, and he continues monthly sessions in speech therapy.
His speech remains slurred and has slowed down, but he said his mind is as sharp as it was before the brain hemorrhage.
During the interview with The Arizona Republic, Johnson said he remains “grateful” for the patience of his South Dakota constituents as he recovered.
“Their support was a big reason for my comeback,” he said.
Johnson told the Arizona newspaper he would offer words of encouragement to Giffords if he had the chance.
“If I could talk to Gabby,” he said, “I would say, ‘Never give up.’”