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Sherman Says: Giffords teaches all of us what it means to be optimistic in the face of adversity

BUFFALO — Her radiant smile was brighter than the afternoon sun streaming in from the windows above. After all, she survived being shot through 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, leaving the audience both thrilled and aching for more.

Giffords and Kelly were invited as part of the university’s Horton Distinguished Speakers Series, during the annual homecoming weekend. None of the students, faculty, staff or visitors in attendance could say they left disappointed.

Kelly was introduced first and spoke for about 50 minutes, pacing the stage with a hand-held microphone while wearing a modified flight jacket nearly covered with Navy and NASA patches. He was totally at ease, as 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. Places like Newark, East Orange and Jersey City,” he said, raising his eyebrows for dramatic emphasis.

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. That vision would come back to him. Shortly after he received the 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 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,” he said.

He gathered up his family and flew on a friend’s private jet to Arizona. While in flight, several media outlets reported that Giffords was dead.

“Sometimes, the media should leave that [decision] up to the doctors,” he said in a jocular tone that allowed most of us in the audience to slip back from the edge of our seats and breathe again.

Six of her staff members and constituents were killed in the shooting.

Following the initial surgery, he met with about 20 medical professionals working 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. It read, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

As they met in a cramped kitchenette in the hospital, 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 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,” he said.

Finally, Giffords appeared on stage where Kelly stood ready to steady her for the short walk to the podium. She waved enthusiastically with one hand while gripping a cane with the other.

“It’s been a long haul, but I’m getting better,” she told the wide-eyed audience. Her diction is precise. “I’m still working to make the world a better place, and you can, too. Be passionate. Be courageous and be your best.”

One of the questions picked from the audience asked if her recovery is a search for her old self, or a new one.

“A new one,” she answered swiftly. “Better. Stronger. Tougher.”

Another query asked what she has learned from her experience.

“I have learned to be grateful.”

David F. Sherman is 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. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Email him at

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