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Sherman Says: What it means to be optimistic

Her radiant smile was brighter than the afternoon sun streaming in from the windows above. After all, she had survived being shot in the head.

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shared the stage with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, on Saturday afternoon at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her words were carefully chosen and deliberately spoken.

Giffords and Kelly were part of the university’s Horton Distinguished Speakers Series.

Kelly wore a modified flight jacket nearly covered with Navy and NASA patches. He detailed his humble upbringing in New Jersey; piloting the space shuttle on four missions seemed to be the last thing one could have expected from him.

“When I was 17, before I joined the Navy, one of the jobs I took was driving an ambulance,” he said. “Places like Newark, East Orange and Jersey City.”

On one of his last nights on the job, he rolled up to a violent crime scene. There, lying on the sidewalk, was a young man who had been shot seven times, including a gunshot wound to the head. Kelly said that this vision came back to him, after he received a telephone call on Jan. 8, 2011 that his wife had been shot at a community outreach event in Tucson, Ariz.

“I flew 39 combat missions, but never expected that she would be the one risking her life, serving her country,” he said. “She was doing the most basic thing in our democracy: talking with the people she represented.”

Kelly said that Giffords’ chief of staff called him at home in Texas and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gabby’s been shot.”

“The image of that guy on the sidewalk came back in a flash,” Kelly said. He gathered up his family and flew on a friend’s private jet to Arizona. While they were in flight, several media outlets reported that Giffords was dead.

“Sometimes, the media should leave that [decision] up to the doctors,” he said. Six of Giffords’ staff members and constituents were killed in the shooting.

Following the initial surgery, Kelly met with medical professionals who worked on a game plan for Giffords’ hours, days, weeks and months ahead. He applied the concept communicated by an inspirational poster in a NASA conference room, which read, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

He circumvented the head of the surgery team and instead asked a young ocular specialist what she would recommend. The ensuing dialogue resulted in an earlier surgical plan’s being resurrected, with successful results.

Following three months in a coma, Giffords’ final brain surgery took place in June 2011. “She inspires me each and every day,” Kelly said.

Giffords appeared on stage and Kelly stood ready to steady her for the short walk to the podium. “It’s been a long haul, but I’m getting better,” she said “I’m still working to make the world a better place, and you can too. Be passionate, be courageous and be your best.”

An audience member asked if Giffords’ recovery is a search for her old self, or a new one. “A new one,” she answered. “Better. Stronger. Tougher.” Another query asked what she has learned from her experience. “I have learned to be grateful.”

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. The author can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.

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